Another love letter: A review of Constance Adler’s “My Bayou”

Event: Jan 29, 2012

Adler's new book, and the author at home in 2010 (photo by Rusty Constanza/The Times-Picayune)
Adler's new book, and the author at home in 2010 (photo by Rusty Constanza/The Times-Picayune)

My Bayou: New Orleans Through the Eyes of a Lover
By Constance Adler
Michigan State University Press

Reviewed by Taylor Murrow

Everyone has his or her New Orleans story. There is the college freshman, eager to experience Bourbon Street in all of its neon-lit, to-go-drink glory. There is the vacationer who became transfixed by second lines and Southern hospitality and never left. There is the volunteer, the kind soul who ventured into the wasteland of post-Katrina and cleaned, gutted, and rebuilt. There is the native, a part of generations born and raised in the collective chaos and energy that is New Orleans, the person who knows no other reality—or maybe does, and just thinks the reality of New Orleans is the best. We are all a part of it, and it is an inseparable part of us. Constance Adler shares her own story in her recently released memoir, My Bayou: New Orleans Through the Eyes of a Lover.

Adler is a New Jersey native who came to New Orleans after leaving a life and career in New York as a journalist. She had a dream in which she took a train to New Orleans, and from there it seems her life’s path was set. She eventually made her way here, and like many of us who have stories, fell in love with New Orleans’ intoxicating scent. (Speaking of scent, I feel compelled to mention Adler’s comparison of New Orleans to a woman’s crotch, if New Jersey is considered the “armpit” of the nation: “Both noted for their moist environment, which gives rise to their complex and robust fragrance. Sometimes loved for their gamy nature, sometimes denigrated as filthy, these body parts posses the ability to both arouse and disgust. In the interstices of that attraction and repulsion lie their power and their mystery.”)

Overall, the picture Adler paints of New Orleans and Bayou St. John is a romantic one, indeed. She describes her first time in the city, “the sudden trumpeting of the paddleboat horn sounding on the Mississippi River, the dirty white paint on the shop fronts along Decatur Street, the brick side of a house slowly undressing as the aged mortar fell away, the deep hush of the night air, as if the city held its breath when I crossed Rampart Street into the Quarter.” The city is a living, breathing being, pulsing with ingenuity and resourcefulness. The Mississippi River and Bayou St. John are forces of vitality that possess their own dizzying power over the narrator. The spirituality, regeneration, and karmic influence of vodou assumes a prominent role in her personal narrative.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s mostly because My Bayou professes a love and reverence for New Orleans that many of us down here have heard before. For those who have never visited, reading My Bayou might feel akin to reading a fairy tale, or a description of some exotic land. Adler begins with the image of the pelican, a curious looking bird that has come to represent resilience for many New Orleanians: “Whenever the pelicans showed up, they bestowed a surprising air of benediction on the bayou, a visitation from some other world. Clearly they’re not from around here, you say to yourself when you see one of these prehistoric giants floating effortlessly on an updraft, poised in midair against a backdrop of rooftops.”

In addition to characterizing New Orleans, My Bayou is of course a memoir, shaped by Adler’s journey and experience in New Orleans pre and post Katrina. Intimate details of her life are shared, and I wish she had included more of those colorful vignettes. The parts that captivated me the most were the explorations into Adler’s relationship with her parents and, especially, her husband—something that gets somewhat glossed over until the end, even though it felt like a main point of tension the whole time. Katrina ravaged so much more than just buildings and architecture, and I felt disappointed with her marriage when she did. I wanted answers, too. Again, it is her imagery that evokes and keeps the momentum going in the story. After making a startling discovery about her husband, Adler wrote, “My brave man, nimble Sean, had feet of clay after all. And his shoes rained down on my head that night.”

Her story is one that is instantly relatable, and almost too much so. It is her inventive writing and imagery that carries the book’s weight, and not the narrative: “It was as though Katrina had turned the city’s pockets inside out and scattered the linty content into the bayou.” Reading some memoirs is akin to hearing someone describe a vivid dream they had the night before. They may express every savory detail, and you can tell how profoundly the dream affected them. But in the end, it will never impact you in the same way, because it was not your dream. It was not your story.

Adler tells her story of her life in New Orleans, a place that is bizarre and uncommon, a little uncouth at times, but always enamoring, even exhilarating. A place with all of those qualities, so diverse and resilient deserves all the praise and love letters in the world. But how many love letters does it need? To continue to engage in this sort of discourse seems a little self-indulgent. New Orleans is different and beautiful and special. And not just because we say so.

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