It is a novel, not a cookbook, but my sister the full-on foodie insists that the recipes all look workable, and what could be more perfect than a story about New Orleans that incidentally teaches you how to make white chocolate bread pudding and jambalaya?
It’s difficult to improve on the original publisher’s description– “This is a novel about sex and sexuality and race and madness and violence and fine dining. Not necessarily in that order”—but I’ll try.
It seems there are as many great books about New Orleans as there are bad movies, but I am mystified at why this one did not immediately claim a place in the canon. Katrovas manages to transform the mundane into the fantastic with ease, makes his primary characters as reflective and natural as any of Walker Percy’s philosophical protagonists, and sets them in New Orleans viscerally real and stripped of its superficial backlot romance.
This is New Orleans without its carnival mask, in which Mardi Gras is simply an inconvenience to the restaurant trade, a New Orleans in which the French Quarter hardly makes an appearance, and yet everything you expect from the city is given without resorting to the easy or predictable. There is food of course but also sex and a bit too much booze, a tragedy worthy of Tennessee Williams hidden in the middle, and in his descriptive powers and a story as compelling as it is ultimately fantastic, he conveys much of what Percy once called “the savor of the genie-soul of the place which every place has or else is not a place.”
Mystic Pig is the first novel of poet and diarist Richard Katrovas, published in 2001 by Smallmouth Press but it quickly disappeared and was forgotten except perhaps by students and other faculty of the University of New Orleans’ nascent writing program, of which he was a founding faculty member. Most of the literate New Orleanians I know have never heard of it. Katrovas is better known as a poet and translator and as the author of several (quite good) autobiographical works.
In 2008, Jon Gifford of Cambridge’s Oleander Press read a reference to the work on the Internet. Curious, he secured a copy and decided to republish it. I only discovered it because of a blogger I know (TheRumpus.net contributor Ray Shea). It was discovered by Shea’s girlfriend, taken up by the fellow who hosts his blog and then by Shea himself, who has turned any number of his friends into fellow travelers by simply insisting: you must read this.
The book is firmly rooted in the routines of mid-life restaurateur Nathan Moore and twelve-year-old Willie Singer, a man and a boy each at the cusp of a change of life, their coming-of-age accelerated when the two collide over a dying poet, scion of old Uptown wealth, writing an apocalyptic epic in anticipation of his own death by alcohol. Nathan wrestles with the everyday of running of a commercial kitchen and a moderately complicated personal life, including his current spouse and children, his ex-wife and her gay lover who are raising his son, and a long-term and mysterious affair with a woman kept just off stage almost the entire book. Much of Nathan’s internal monologue is carried out through an extended and philosophical email correspondence with his recently discovered birth mother, as he attempts to explain his adult life.
Willie confronts coming-of-age as an exceptionally bright and perceptive child in a city where exceptionally bright and perceptive dark-skinned African Americans are not particularly valued, confronting the casual racism, the loss of his Uncle (a particular friend of the mad poet) who was his male role model in a mother-only household, the danger of inner city life (he buys a gun from an unsavory relative to protect his mother after wounding a burglar who escaped, fearing retribution). He succeeds his Uncle as the poet’s muse, fetching him liquor from his mother’s store and listening to him read the epic poem Mystic Pig for $20 a sitting.
There is one Rabelaisianly funny character that puts Nathan in a place much like finding oneself the employer of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces’ Ignatius Reilly. And his own attempts at reforming that character’s peculiar maladjustment causes as much havoc in Nathan’s life as Reilly does in that of everyone around him.
Katrovas weaves this rather complicated tapestry with great lyrical aplomb, and his long gracefully flowing sentences show his poetic roots and reveal the scene like the practiced strokes of a masterful French Quarter street artist painting a Creole cottage from muscle memory. He ably tackles the challenge of rendering a believable (even to natives) New Orleans, in a novel with characters as compelling and deep as Percy’s and John Ford’s, with moments as comic as Toole’s and as tragic as Williams. These aren’t accolades a tradition-bound Orleanian gives lightly, but with the same consideration reserved for commending a restaurant or selecting Rex, King of Carnival. By this book Katrovas deserves to stand beside these great chroniclers of New Orleans, the South and human nature.
This book is a New Orleans feast you won’t be able to resist once you catch a whiff of it. I’ll be mystified if you don’t find yourself pushing this book on friends, then talking about organizing Mystic Pig dinners, and perhaps babbling to strangers on the bus deep in their copy of The Moviegoer about why they have to read Mystic Pig.