In one of the stories in James Nolan’s Perpetual Care, a boy stays in a house with his mother’s corpse for more than a week, until the police carry him out of the house by force. Going on living with something that was a part of your life, but is now dead: A lot of people do that in James Nolan’s universe, albeit not all as explicitly as the boy in that story. For some it’s a dead dream that they carry around, for some a way of life that ceased to exist. And still the stories aren’t morbid. They have beauty like the fall leaves that have the brightest color just before they wither away and die. The stories are mostly set in New Orleans or surrounding areas. In some of them Northern California is a presence. The former is a part of the country that could have been the Promised Land; the latter, a place that actually was until, as Nolan says in “The Immortalist,” it turned into “caricature and real estate.” The stories that are set in New Orleans can only be set in New Orleans. The grime, the moisture, the brown sludgy water held away by flimsy levees, the hurricanes; they are all required for the stories to be told. And yet, there is something universal in the stories. Something that I, a software engineer from India who shares hardly anything with the characters, can relate to.
I bought Perpetual Care from a bookstore in Faubourg Marigny about a month ago. I read the first two stories on my way back to New York and then took the book along when I had to rush to India to see the man who raised me slowly give in to cancer. It’s been two weeks since my uncle died. He stood by me for twenty-eight of my thirty years like a father. I saw him go from a fully functioning man to a grunting, stuporous mass of skin and bones in the last two years. After he stopped breathing, I stood by as the townspeople gathered around his body. They trussed him to a makeshift bamboo stretcher with rough coconut-skin strings, carried him to the beach close by, dipped him in the sea that he had always loved, and put him on the pyre. About two hundred people—Hindus (every possible caste), Muslims, Jains—carried planks of wood and placed them over his body. I looked on as they arranged him on the pyre. Then, as is the Hindu tradition, I took a shovelful of burning coals and tossed it on the pyre. Flames lashed out within minutes like the tongues of mad dogs. Within an hour and half he was reduced to ashes and smoke that went up towards his beloved Pleiades.
All this while I was thinking about the title story in Perpetual Care, I would rather put him in a tomb above the ground. As strange as the custom may be to the tourists to visit New Orleans, you don’t have to see the feet of the man who taught you to walk curl up as the rest of his body burns to ashes. In that story, an old French Catholic woman notices a black man’s voice singing a love song from the tomb of a white family known to her. What unfolds is a story of love tortured by social norms. Nolan could have used magical realism here to make his point, but he doesn’t use it as a crutch.
I read stories from the book while tending to my uncle when he was sick and in between the constant flow of visitors after he went. In some strange way it kept me sane. A smell emanates from the stories, a human smell of sweat and follies. That was what I related to. I have loved New Orleans from the first time I visited it. It reminded me of every place I had called home so far. I thought of the city and the stories as I moved from consoling my aunt, who had not spent a single day apart from her husband of thirty-three years, to hiding my live-in relationship with an American girl from my conservative Jain relatives, who wanted me start seeing girls from families they knew. The stories gave me a window to somewhere different from where I was (a hell and a home very different from mine but also very close to it).
The characters are in the stories are varied and from different walks of life. A private detective with bills to pay, a gay hustler with a glib mouthful of made-up life stories and missing front teeth, a retired mortician sick of tourists on “Vampire Tours,” a cross-dressing plumber, or as in a few stories, older Creole ladies still holding on to an idea of aristocracy that went bankrupt many years ago. Mr. Nolan describes the characters in a way you would talk about family with affection but also a bit of anger.
The characters are undeniably a part of their city but they are fleshed out enough to have similarities to real people in any part of the world. How different are the aristocratic Creole ladies withering away in their mansion in “Lucy LeBlanc’s last Stand” from the old man who lived across from my parent’s house, in India? He walked around in a tattered suit every evening, greeting people as if he was in a pre–World War II England. Couldn’t the story of Narda, the woman from “The Tower,” clinging to the soul of a San Francisco neighborhood long after its body has been killed by gentrification, be true of someone living in New York’s East Village? The language is rich and in parts beautifully muddled. What do I mean by that? It’s not crisp and clear cut like that of so many authors writing short fiction these days. There is a taste to it. If there is chaos within, that is the beauty of it. How would you describe a muggy summer in the French Quarter or the sickening heat that tires you out but also makes you want to feel? In “All Spiders, no Flies,” Nolan gives us:
At dusk everybody comes scampering out like roaches hiding from the scorching light. Then the neighborhood is one big cocktail party. Music blares out of open bar doors. Hunky guys in tank tops and cutoffs lean against car hoods sucking on ice cubes, rattling go-cups at you as you pass. People scream at each other from balcony to balcony, hang out on their stoops, draining beers and mopping their brows and shooting the shit with everyone who walks by.
It’s too hot to touch. And too hot not to.
Parth Vasa is an Indian writer living in New York City. He writes software for a living and short fiction, narrative non-fiction, and short screenplays to make that living worthwhile. His film reviews have been published on www.slashfilm.com. He blogs occasionally at http://somniumcache.blogspot.com.