Review by Sean Ennis
New Orleans as a city is complicated, and has become even more so over the past five years. Countless narratives have emerged since Katrina describing the city’s joys and plights, and surely more will come from the recent oil spill in the Gulf. And it is difficult to discuss James Nolan’s debut short fiction collection divorced from its primary setting. Since New Orleans is one of those few American cities where issues of “authenticity” are always tantamount, it is no surprise that Nolan has already been congratulated for nailing the culture and ambiance of the city. As bleak as many of the stories are, the reader does get the feeling that New Orleans is the place to be: a place where music and death, and food and regret are mingled in a sort of alchemy to produce something valuable. All of these stories are haunted by the past (be it recent, or generations’ old), and yet the exorcism of those ghosts often seems possible by the simple sharing of a meal, or a cigarette, or a small tender gesture.
That said, it would be a shame for the booming setting of New Orleans to overshadow the strength of Nolan’s writing. In the end, it is not place that dominates this collection, but the characters who are each singularly interesting. The grieving girlfriend who places a radio in her dead lover’s entombed pocket in the title story, the Homicide detective who turns to poetry as a way to confess his own failings in “Open Mike.” The irritable, nocturnal neighborhood activist frustrated with tourists in “The Vampire Tour Diary.” And the narrator in the final story, “What Floats”—the piece that deals most directly with Hurricane Katrina—who confesses to having spent ten days with his mother’s corpse as a child. While to some extent these characters must be from New Orleans, readers will find themselves in these pages, though they may be both frightened and delighted to do so.
One of the other real strengths of Nolan’s collection is his ability to transform subject matter that is clichéd in lesser writers’ hands into stories that feel vital and necessary. Alzheimer’s, child abuse, gambling, funerals—dramas that I’d argue are often over-played to very little interest—get new life here, the life they deserve. And I think I know how he does it. It is no surprise that Nolan has previously published as a poet because his sentences are impeccable. Each contains a small surprise, or killer image, or turn of phrase that both moves the story forward and thrills the reader with a poet’s economy and precision of language.
In a time where the value of the short story and its collections are being questioned, Perpetual Care is a strong argument for why they are crucial. The kaleidoscope view of New Orleans offered here feels necessary in Nolan’s hands. He displays a deep understanding of how individual stories can work together to form a larger narrative. Some of his characters have lived in New Orleans all of their lives. Some leave briefly. Some are reluctant to return. And while we’ve seen many love songs to that city in recent years, these stories feel closest to what love really is: an acceptance of faults, an impulse towards forgiveness, and a desire for things to get better.
Perpetual Care won the 2009 Next-Generation Indie Book Award for Best Short Story Collection.