|07/02/2010 - Reviewed by Penne Laubenthal
B. Sammy Singleton, in a manner that recalls the opening lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, introduces himself in the first line of the The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans with a single revelatory sentence that is the key to his character: "Sitting in CC's all by myself, as long as you don't count the other people, sipping a double cap I don't want ever to end and committed to getting started on this book (okay guidebook) with no further ado."
Sammy has been given a generous advance by his publisher (Winnie Hargreaves of Lucky Dog Press) to write a guidebook to the coffee houses of New Orleans. The obvious distinction between Huckleberry Finn and B. Sammy Singleton is that Huck is 14 and Sammy is 45; however, neither of them has previously undertaken the writing of a book and Sammy is finding the task particularly onerous. Just as Huck Finn declares at the conclusion of Twain's novel "if I had knowed what a trouble it was to make a book, I wouldn't a tackled it," Sammy is wishing he had not already spent his first advance as now, like it or not, he must produce.
Another similarity between Huck and Sammy is that, despite the vast difference in their ages and the space of more than a century between them, both Huck and Sammy find themselves forced to confront a world where injustice, particularly racial injustice, abounds and both characters discover, as Huck Finn observes, "Human beings can be mighty cruel to one another."
Sammy, ten years sober when the book begins, has fled his life in the city of New York some six years before and taken refuge in New Orleans where he plans on losing himself. Once addicted to alcohol, Sammy is now addicted to coffee, double cappuccinos to be exact. He is a fixture in all the coffee shops of the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. However, Sammy frequents the coffee shops not, as the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson did, in order to engage society but to escape it. Due to his "anorexic social skills," Sammy seeks peace and solitude in the coffee shops (note he calls them coffee shops not coffee houses—for Sammy there is a clear difference) where he can indulge his natural proclivity towards isolation, but isolation is not to be Sammy's fate.
The Coffee Shop Chronicles begins on the morning of August 16, 2005, and, with the exception of a three chapter flashback (Chapters 9-11) to 1998, the year Sammy arrived in the Big Easy, concludes in the wee hours of the morning on August 26, 2005—just three days before Hurricane Katrina. Sammy is a compulsive journaler and he begins the journal in an effort to discipline himself and organize his thoughts about the book he is supposed to be writing. It is within the pages of this journal that the novel takes place. What begins for Sammy as a self-indulgent and somewhat haphazard effort to structure his life metamorphoses into a journey into history and subsequently deep into himself.
When the novel or rather journal begins, Sammy has just been through a harrowing experience that he desperately wants to put behind him. His best friend Catfish, reluctant heir to the Beaucouer sugarcane fortune, has been arrested for “grave robbing”—an outlandish charge as Catfish could afford to buy several graveyards and is not even interested in possessions but rather in making restitution for having inherited a tainted fortune. Even so, Catfish has just spent the weekend in jail, and after picking him up (the day before the narration begins) Sammy is determined to wrest his life back to normalcy by throwing himself into the book. This is not to be, however, because as he gradually comes to realize over the course of the next few days, Catfish is gone.
In quest of Catfish, Sammy (much like James Joyce's Leopold Bloom in Dublin) wanders the streets of New Orleans from the Faubourg Tremé to the river's edge. During his strangeodyssey, Sammy encounters the diverse and unorthodox characters that populate the novel. These characters, vividly drawn,convincingly portrayed, and as exotic and complex as a savory jambalaya, find their way into our hearts.
Sammy, who is given to taking other people's inventory (a big no-no in AA), desperately wants to do the right thing. He knows he has been less than a good friend to Catfish, who befriended him when he first came to New Orleans, but he just cannot seem, despite self-recrimination and resolutions to reform, to do right by him. Although Sammy embraces and celebrates the diversity of the city that shelters him and has no problem with his own sexual orientation, he does have a problem with Sammy—who just keeps on running away.
When Catfish disappears, Sammy is forced to look at his own life and he is not pleased with what he sees. As he becomes increasingly determined to track down his friend, he is catapulted into the dark and bloodstained past of Catfish’s slave-holding forbears and his life is forever changed. He discovers that he, too, must bear responsibility for what Catfish refers to as "the American Holocaust" He also finds himself with no choice but to consider the grim possibility that "on more than one occasion in Catfish’s past, it was in the very process of trying to unravel himself from that infinitely malignant thread that, in that form of despair most desperate, he alternately wove it into a noose."
What this discovery will mean for Sammy and what has become of Catfish Beaucoeur will not emerge until Parts 2 and 3 of The Coffee Shop Chronicles are released. The entirety of Part 2 takes on a single day (Friday August 26), whereas Part 3 unfolds over a two-month period in Paducah, KY (Lummis’ own hometown), where Sammy and his housemates reside during their post-hurricane exile from New Orleans.These subsequent parts of the serial novel will be released in the fall and winter of this year, respectively.
David Lummis is a lively storyteller (and by extension so is Sammy) and Chronicles is liberally dusted, like one of the beignets at Café du Monde that Sammy so adores, with Sammy's wry and witty observations and delightful digressions on such topics as children (why not to have them—thinkW. C. Fields), Starbucks Coffee (which he likes), Martha Stewart (whom he also likes and credits, along with Starbucks, with making “our collective American life immeasurably better”), as well as the crisis of confronting midlife (which he hates).
One of the funniest passages in the novel, or at least one with which I totally identified, is the second paragraph of Chapter 2 "I'm Not Saying I'd Fall Apart." Here Sammy says that the big 4-0 " blindsided him completely” and that "Taking the cue like a Nazi soldier my body immediately began to fall apart, behaving like a stranger who for no apparent reason had it in for me. Minor aches and pains once barely noticeable or easily dismissed were now each a painful foreshadowing of a future full of far greater corporeal woes, most of them undiagnosable and impervious to bulk orders of highly toxic prescription medications."
Lummis' novel took me back a couple of decades to another first novel that is one of my all time favorites and is also set in New Orleans—A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The protagonists of each book, B. Sammy Singleton and Ignatius J. Riley, share a sense of indignation at the injustices of the world, but there is a huge difference between them. Sammy has a powerful conscience. Ignatius J. Riley has none.
While reading Chronicles I was also reminded of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel.Altamont (Asheville, NC) is not New Orleans and Eugene Gant is not B. Sammy Singleton, but both characters are possessed of a common disillusionment and an urge to make things right in the world. Ironically, You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe is one of the books Sammy finds in Catfish's abandoned library with the long passage which begins "I believe we are lost here in America" underlined.
Like most first novels, Chronicles is quasi-autobiographical, a fact Lummis readily acknowledges. The history and the places are real, only the characters are imaginary. In addition to the colorful characters that populate the book, the city herself emerges as a character, as does River House, a beautifully restored Creole-plantation-style home in the Marigny district where Lummis lives with his life partner Csaba Lukacs. Lummis's tenderand affectionate descriptions of New Orleans, his "Paris of the South," evoke Pat Conroy's lush and loving portrayal of coastal South Carolina. Just asConroy's South of Broad is a paean to Charleston. so is Lummis's Chronicles a love song to New Orleans. Alternately funny, painful, entertaining, and always unflinchingly honest, The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans is a must read.
A 21st century Leopold—not Joyce's Leopold Bloom or Conroy's Leopold Bloom King but the Leopold of the 2001 movie, Kate and Leopold—once said "...without the culinary arts, the crudeness of reality would be unbearable" (a variation on a statement by G.B. Shaw about the necessity of art). In yet another version, B. Sammy Singleton might say "without a double cappuccino the crudeness of reality would be unbearable."
So, order this book, head to your favorite neighborhood coffee shop, order up a double cap, kick back, and enjoy the ride.