Interzone Review



The setting for Lucius Shepard's Louisiana Breakdown . . . Opening with an establishment of locale reminiscent of other Southern masters of setting, such as Faulkner or Flannery O'Conner, Shepard immediately announces his identification with a long and regional literary tradition, as well as a love and intimate knowledge of an older, possibly fading, rural culture and environment. And though this short novel could be accused of pandering to certain social stereotypes, anyone who has traveled the deltas and bayous of the Deep South can tell you that this region remains the most culturally individual and conservative area of the United States, quite unlike any other. At times certain generalizations may indeed apply.

Jack Mustaine is just passing through, a musician from California headed to Florida. Escaping a professional rut as well as a relationship with a wealthy, older woman, his car breaks down on the outskirts of Grail, Louisiana, located somewhere along the Gulf. After an initial altercation with the local constable, Jack is rescued by the town's leading citizen and his flirtatious Vietnamese girlfriend. As his car will be laid up for repairs, they take him to the town's most popular watering hole, Le Bon Chance. There Jack will be picked up by a mysterious woman, Vida Dumars, an encounter that will prove both a promise and a curse for both.

It doesn't take Jack long to conclude that Grail is a decidedly weird place, a "confluence of the mystical and the mundane." Many of the residents claim to be psychic, and storefronts dispensing strange remedies and occult knowledge nestle beside grocers and photography shops. The townsfolk believe they are blessed by a bargain made long ago with a legend called the Good Grey Man, a compact that doesn't seem so much to have made Grail prosper as to have held it in a kind of stasis, a perpetual state of affairs in which little truly bad or momentous occurs. Still, most of the town's residents appear satisfied with the deal they have struck, and every twenty years, on St. John's Eve, a Midsummer's Queen is selected from among their young daughters, a living embodiment of the town's pact, as well as its continued "good" fortune. Jack has arrived just before the start of festivities.

As it turns out, his new girlfriend is just as unusual as the town. The current Midsummer's Queen, she will soon turn over her reign to the next successor. But she has not worn the crown easily, and has only recently returned to Grail after falling in with an occult figure from New Orleans. This man continues to haunt her, both in her dreams as well as in waking moments, and Vida prays for escape, both from her troubled past as well as from Grail. Thus her meeting of Jack seems a godsend, an opportunity to leave both town and past behind her. All that's needed is to wait and pass on her title to the next Queen selected.

Those jumping to the conclusion that this is just another visit to voodoo are mistaken. Borrowing and blending from various folklore and horror traditions, Shepard's flair for language and composition largely carries the narrative along, even when certain elements appear familiar. Standard tropes, such as Jack's confrontation with the typical redneck sheriff, are easily glossed over through Shepard's vibrant use of description and setting, as well as attention to his characters. And the story moves in directions, particularly towards the end, that are not entirely anticipated. The author's use of the already heavily freighted grail, while not completely abandoning its traditional associations, is novel in approach, as is the utilization of occult elements to raise unexpected existential questions.

My only real problem with the narrative came with the incorporation of a Vietnamese village into the scene depicting the St. John's Eve festivities. This inclusion seems to offer little relevance to the main storyline, and if meant as an attempt at some political statement, failed in its effect, appearing out of context and contrived. Additionally, after the marvelous care and patience expended in establishing the setting during the first chapter, Vida's introduction and the events occurring after her swim in the second felt comparatively rushed and premature, a change in pacing out of balance with what precedes and follows. Finally, I remain unconvinced that J.K. Potter's rather lurid illustrations complement the story that well, though I know there are those that appreciate pictures harkening back to the heyday of the pulps. Nonetheless, and despite these caveats, this is a very enjoyable novel overall, and to be recommended both for its many narrative strengths as well as the author's facile style of writing. It's more than just another romp in the swamp.

— William Thompson, Interzone, April 2003



 

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