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Brief, Brutish, and Bacchic

Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints

Brief, Brutish, and Bacchic

Photo by Nikreates / Alamy Stock Photo

Being normal,” Nancy Lemann writes in Lives of the Saints, “was one quality New Orleans just never had.”

New Orleans has never felt more abnormal, and thus perfectly normal in its perfectly abnormal New Orleansness, than in Lemann’s debut novel, published in 1985. Lives of the Saints traces the homecoming of Louise Brown, back in New Orleans after graduating from college in the northeast, and the reignition of her dizzyingly tragicomic relationship with Claude Collier.

An eternal bachelor in his late twenties stumbling through a semi-charmed life, Claude is often drunk, but never bothersome. He’s a quick-witted college dropout who has never read a book in his life. A silver-spoon–fed uptowner whose wealth ballooned due to a shrimp peeler patent dreamt up after slipping on a banana peel at a debutante party. He pals around with “wino lunatics, dissipated businessmen, crooked politicians, demented young lawyers, debutantes, alcoholics, and sleazy men with black-and-white checkered sports jackets and hacking coughs.”

“Claude is not using his abilities,” his father judges. But Claude is Claude—you no doubt know a specimen like him—accepted and embraced by many for his very Claudeness.

According to a friend, he “would give an ant a funeral.” In Louise’s eyes, Claude is a man who “made the world seem kind.”

Simply put, Claude is a person poor fools fall in love with, despite the fact that that love will be forever nonreciprocal. He’s a saint, in other words, a tenderhearted but untouchable soul doomed to a saintly existence: brief, brutish, and, if you’re a perfectly normal abnormal New Orleanian, Bacchic.

“If you can understand a person whose heart is constantly breaking into a million pieces on the floor,” Louise says, “then you can understand Claude.” But despite the fact that Claude gives her the “distinct feeling that something is wrong . . . except you do not know what it is”—a “nameless wrong,” she calls it—Louise is ready to be swept into a pile of a million broken pieces right alongside him.

Louise’s devotion means negotiating the “buffoonish hedonism” of Claude’s social circles. She traces his footsteps, a Stations of the Cross uptown New Orleans–style, from Antoine’s to Commander’s to the Sazerac Bar to the Napoleon House. She attends weddings where uptowners display “the mock-amazed congeniality of New Orleanians confronted with the spectacle of one another” and house parties at pink plantations on the city’s outskirts where all anyone talks about is the next wedding. And then there’s the frequent suppers at the Colliers, “the last family in America to eat formal dinners served by a butler wearing a tuxedo.”

In Claude’s resolutely unreconstructed uptown New Orleans, everyone adheres to a lost cause or two. In these circles, Jeb Stuart is eminently quotable. The petroleum industry encroaches on the Colliers’ sugar plantations, much to the family’s dismay. Young women are compared to “delicate magnolia blossoms,” and then, once married, only referred to by their husband’s surname. Whenever Louise Brown dreams about becoming Louise Collier, she’s reminded of the other Mrs. Collier, Claude’s mother. After graduating from Radcliffe, she moved to New Orleans with aspirations of teaching at Tulane, but had to settle for a life of learning “to cope with silver, with crystal, with entertaining, and with other things previously foreign to her.” Louise’s lost cause is the epitome of the Lost Cause, as it were: Claude.

Lemann captures New Orleans at a moment when the Lost Cause’s long-cracked pillars—the patriarchy, Jim Crow segregation, quoting Confederate generals in polite company—were finally crumbling, causing the Colliers’ coterie to show signs of collapse. In Lives of the Saints, characters are always trumpeting their imminent crack-up, breakdown, or freak out, often to wildly comical effect.

“I think I was having a Breakdown,” one says.

“That’s what we’re all about down here . . . Breakdowns.”

“People fall apart easily here.”

This throwaway gag becomes increasingly more common and progressively absurd, culminating in a death-knell crescendo as if sung by a Greek chorus, with everyone chiming in:

“Everyone is falling apart.”

“Everything is falling apart.”

“I’m falling apart.”

You don’t have to be among the “decaying social conservatives in seersucker suits,” as Lemann calls them, to identify with the Colliers’ plight. The truth is, when are New Orleanians ever not falling apart? Breaking down binds us all. Or to paraphrase John Donne, the bell tolls for the Crescent City.

Lives of the Saints owes a great debt to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and should be just as widely read. A literary mentor to Lemann, Percy praised her novel as a “lovely nutty book about a lovely nutty girl.” Both debut novels satirically skewer the privileged, white, insular milieu their authors were well familiar with, though in very different ways. The Moviegoer’s Binx Bolling is an existentialist-wracked insider seeking to escape New Orleans’s provincialism. Louise Brown is an outsider looking in, perhaps reflecting Lemann’s experience growing up Jewish in the city’s notoriously anti-Semitic uptown in-crowd.

Lemann swiftly followed Lives of the Saints with a terrific piece of novelistic nonfiction, The Ritz of the Bayou, about the racketeering trials of Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. It maybe wasn’t much of a swerve. If her first book chronicled the life of a sinning saint, what was our four-term-governor-slash-playboy-turned-convicted-felon if not a saintly sinner?

As we all know, the roguish governor went on to win two more terms. But Lemann doesn’t let Claude Collier off so easy. After Claude’s younger brother tragically dies, Claude cracks up, fleeing north on an aimless road trip. Louise follows him up, and back down south. They rendezvous over cocktails at where else but Galatoire’s, where he urges her to go her own way. It’s the sweet sort of breakup we all wish for but never get: soft, gentle, and, one might say, saintly. Perfectly abnormal, abnormally perfect.

Rien Fertel’s newest book is Brown Pelican, out now from Louisiana State University Press.