Another Locus Magazine Review

Louisiana Breakdown, Lucius Shepard (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-14-2, $21.95, 145pp, hc) April 2003. Cover by J.K. Potter.

Our final trip to swampland is the Lucius Shepard novella Louisiana Breakdown. Grail is another little town infused with the supernatural. In her foreword, Poppy Z. Brite praises Shepard's grasp of "the south Louisiana sense of pantheism" where "Native American gods became swamp monsters, the Catholic saints merged bloodily with the Creole voodoo pantheon, the Old Ones stopped by a storefront church on Claiborne Avenue, and we still pray to any and all of them according to what seems most efficacious." That's a pretty good description of the spirit behind mojo in general, wherever you try to work it.

In Grail the luck of the town depends on the Midsummer Queen, a 10-year-old maiden chosen every 20 years. While the terms may sound suspiciously Celtic, the practice has become thoroughly indigenous. As for the "breakdown" of the title, it's a punning reference to a literally inoperable car belonging to Jack Mustaine, an L.A. singer-songwriter who had planned to breeze right through Grail — until the BMW stops running and he gets sucked into the portentous events related to this particular Midsummer Night's Eve. A characteristic Shepard passage, recapping a little too much of what he has already shown more directly, features Jack playing guitar in local nightspot Le Bon Chance:

The music Mustaine made was nervous and wired, traveling music, the music of interrupted flight, of anxiety, a breakdown of the moment, of his take on being stranded in Grail, this chicory-flavored nowhere that seemed itself to be in a state of breakdown, of imminent collapse. It referenced as well the working-class decay evidenced by Le Bon Chance, the more ornate sexual decay of its redheaded owner, and the startling presence of a beautiful woman in a white dress who was staring at him with disturbing intensity from the fringe of the crowd.

Set this beside the book's bravura opening passage, with its vistas of "scrawny old suspender-wearing men listening to baseball on the gas station radio . . . Dinged cars and battered pickups parked on the slant with gray patches of Bondo on their fenders, Ragin' Cajun decals polka-dotting the windshields," and you may understand why I sometimes have problems with Shepard. When you can convey an atmosphere so well through imagery, why go back and laboriously spell things out?

Analysis works better as part of the dialog. One of the locals, a woman who's been around, may put it best of all when she tells Mustaine, late in the game, "New York, Los Angeles . . . Omaha, you look beneath the surface, it's nuts everywhere. Difference 'tween the rest of the world and Grail, our surface been peeled away for a couple hundred years. We in what'cha might call plain fuckin' view." And that's where Shepard does excel, in Louisiana Breakdown and elsewhere — with his ability to peel away the surface without destroying all the mystery.

— Faren Miller, Locus, May 2003


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