When I first bought The Sound of Building Coffins, by Louis Maistros, I was already in the middle of another book. My girlfriend Linda was visiting me in New Orleans. Her semester at the University of Michigan had just ended, so she had a rare week where she could read for pleasure, and I told her she could go ahead and read it first.
I knew the book took place in turn-of-the-last-century New Orleans at the dawn of the jazz age, when Back o’ Town was still really in back of town; when yellow fever bonfires still smoldered in the streets; when sewage and swamps and canals still competed with roads as the authoritative geographic landmarks that delineated place boundaries. I had already read one of the early chapters, “The Note,” and it hooked me hard. A poetic, magical scene in which a teenage Buddy Bolden, alone in a drunken fog and on the verge of alcoholic unconsciousness, accidentally discovers the progressions on his trumpet that trigger in his head the birth of jazz. It was a superb imagining of an origin myth, the exact primordial moment when African beats and European marches and American blues tonality coalesced in the mind of one brilliant, violent, drunken savant, as though Bolden did not so much invent jazz as channel it from some other place.
That was all I had read. Linda had just read the whole book; and, since she knew I was a complete Nazi when it comes to spoilers, she was resisting the urge to tell me anything about it.
It was her last night before she went back to Michigan. It was, in fact, probably the last night we would ever spend together in New Orleans. A nasty custody battle with my ex-wife had resulted in me being forced to move to Austin in order to keep half-custody of my kids. After growing up in New Orleans, starting a family in Austin, then moving back to my hometown after Katrina for three years of rebuilding and pain and too-few triumphs, I was being forced by family court to go AWOL from The Struggle. I’d be gone in a few weeks, and I didn’t know when or if I would ever return for good.
That night we went to the levee in Audubon Park to watch the sunset. We’d packed a picnic dinner from Tee Eva’s–some jambalaya, some crawfish pies, some sweet potato pies. It was a warm, late spring evening, and the sun was sinking below the far side of the river. The sky was a fruit salad sorbet smear, blindingly orange at the horizon, blending into peach which faded to a strawberry pastel pink, to violet, to darkness.
We were eating crawfish pie with our fingers, having one of our many friendly intellectual disagreements, this time about what makes the perfect sunset (her: clouds; me: pollution). Other people and couples sat around us.
Nearby was an old black man, just a guy from the neighborhood. He was working three fishing poles at once, going from one to the other, fixing bait, recasting, adjusting them just right. He was a big man with a full graying beard, a paunch, overalls, a trucker hat. He looked more “country” than you typically see in this part of the city. A kind face, sort of shy, but beaming at being the center of attention for all these picnickers sitting around in the grass.
I told Linda I didn’t think he could catch anything where he was fishing. The river was high from the spring rains and the Midwest snow melt. The bottom dropped off pretty steeply on this side of the river, and there wasn’t much in the way of shade or structure cover where I thought fish like to hang out.
The man finished baiting his last line, cast it, and let it sink to the bottom. As he walked back by us he said, to nobody in particular, “they sure do love them shrimps”.
Linda was completely charmed by him. She loves the “place-ness” of New Orleans, the way it is still so completely and thoroughly intertwined with its past. This man fishing in front of us could be a person from any era going back to before the Civil War, and could even have fished from this exact spot that long ago.
We sat close, touching, and we talked about my divorce, and we talked about our future together. I talked about my fears for my children, what they were going through, what they were being put through unnecessarily. I was afraid I wouldn’t be strong enough to be a single parent. I was afraid I wasn’t doing the right things to combat the negative influences in their lives. I was afraid I might not be able to contain my disappointment and grief over being forced to move back to Austin, having only escaped that soulless hipster Disneyland three years ago. We schemed about what we would do when her school was done, when my active parenting years were done, when we could go anywhere and do anything and never be apart again.
The old man was fiddling with one of his rods, jerking it a little, a little more, until it suddenly bent over double. I was still sure he couldn’t have caught anything but driftwood, or he’d got hung up on some of the crushed stone that reinforces this part of the levee, or something.
I seriously doubted there was a fish on the end of that line.
I also, if I were completely honest with myself, didn’t know shit about fishing.
He pulled a catfish out of the river. A catfish the size of a small child. It was massive, well over two feet long and fat in the face and belly. He managed to get it into a net, and then carried his trophy over to an ice chest to let the gathering crowd gaze upon it.
I think it was a blue cat; its skin was a bright, translucent, luminous blue in the belly and face and especially around the eyes.
“It has blue eyes!” Linda said.
In the fading dusk it almost glowed. It looked like more than a fish. It looked like a magical creature, like something that any minute now would open its mouth and speak, and grant three wishes if only the fisherman would promise to throw him back.
The man cut the hook with some wire cutters and said, “Got to put him back in here now.”
A guy in the crowd, misreading his intent, asked, “You’re gonna throw him back in?”
The old man gave the guy a pitying look and said, “Yeah, right. I’m gonna throw him back in.”
And he tossed the fish into the ice chest and thumped the lid closed.
“Throw him back in. Daaamn.”
He went off to tie another hook on his line, shaking his head at the idiot white boy.
I started reading The Sound of Building Coffins that night, and I realized why Linda had been so enthralled. At the beginning of the book, we meet Typhus Morningstar, a young mulatto boy who works for the local witch doctor / abortionist, disposing of the unwanted fetuses. At night he would take a burlap sack of two or three bloody, unborn babies, wade into the river and hold them under, talking softly to them, molding them and forming them like clay, until they were fully-formed catfish and could swim away on their own accord. And every night he would see Mr. Marcus Nobody Special up on the pier with his fishing rod, fishing for catfish and more often than not throwing them back, waiting for a certain one, a special catfish that he would recognize when he caught it.
The catfish figures strongly in the book as a symbol of rebirth and redemption, as a means whereby sadness and guilt and grief can be assuaged. And one very important catfish, a fish that Typhus uses later in the book to bring relief to a grieving character, has bright green eyes. Not blue, but close enough.
In my own predicament, in my sadness and rage at my situation, my guilt over what I had done to my family, and the uncertainty of my future, I needed that catfish that the old man caught that night. I need to believe that Typhus and Marcus really existed, that a magical catfish could bring redemption, that such relief was actually possible. And I needed to receive it wrapped in a beautiful, mystical love letter to New Orleans like the one Louis Maistros wrote.
For me, it was the perfect book, at the perfect time, and I will cherish it forever.
And some day I will move home to New Orleans, for good.