By Jennifer Levasseur
Books open windows. They smash doors. They reveal canals and warrens—and even trapdoors—that we didn’t know existed. Their power is the reason that every totalitarian government (and too often seemingly democratic ones)* ban books, even novels, that bring up uncomfortable ideas, especially those that make us rethink who we are and who we want to be from now on. I celebrate every one of those books that chipped away at who I was—or who I thought I was.
Over a lifetime, this constant challenge to identity is perversely invigorating, but it’s also exhausting. Books remind us that we’re never finished, we’re never wholly right, we’ve done wrong, we can always do better. We’ve lived in a tunnel of our own experience, of our own desires and with our own wellbeing firmly at the center.
But as I’ve moved physically and mentally into other lives and inhabited cities all over the world and inhabited even more identities through novels, my gaze, slowly, has been moving homeward. There’s a homesickness that nothing can cure, including a return. That sickness is for a self and a time that no longer exists. (Sounds like it’s finally time to read Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.) Somehow, even though I live surrounded by books (drowning in books), I forgot that they can be the portal back. But I forgive myself for lacking that realization for so long: I was sure there were no novels set in my place that breathed life into my people. So sure, I didn’t even hunt for them.
Louisiana enjoys a rich, nuanced and full literary culture. It has produced some of the nation’s quintessential novels—The Awakening, All the King’s Men, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Moviegoer—but most often they remain New Orleans-centric. The mecca, the seat of culture. The shining city across the river. The city where I attended high school and college, where I spent my early adulthood. A place I can slip into with comfort but that, at the core, I must admit I’m still courting with limited success despite my lifelong infatuation.
My place, Plaquemines Parish—even more mysterious, more unknown but a dormant kernel at the center of my being—sits as south of New Orleans as a person can travel by land, its thin peninsula splintering into knobby fingers of marshland. In the last fifty years, it has dropped the equivalent of two hundred fifty square miles into the Gulf of Mexico. It is the location of one of the nation’s largest ports, home to fishermen, citrus farmers, refineries. Everything wild encroaches on everything tame. Just last week, my mother stumbled upon a four-foot alligator in the garden against my parents’ house.
Of course I know the 2003 Plaquemines Parish-set novel Oyster by John Biguenet, my former professor, and I felt pride that he brought the parish and its history back to the national literary scene, but I wanted, without being able to articulate it until now, something of the place that I was born into, a novel that cemented the history of people I knew while they were forming and being formed by the place. I wanted to remember my grandmother, my grandfather before I had ever met them.
A chance comment recently led an editor at Louisiana State University Press to tell me about the re-release of a 1941 novel set, as we’d say, down the road.
Enter The Great Big Doorstep by E. P. O’Donnell.
While I waited for it to arrive, I vacillated between giddy excitement and preemptory distain. I worried about clichés and that I’d find mistakes in the first page that would push my homesickness into despair.
But within reading a few sentences, I felt like I’d come home to a place I’d thought I’d known but, in reading on, that I began to learn and love anew. I wanted to underline every bit of dialogue and litter the hefty novel with stars and asterisks, but not only for its intrinsic greatness, its hilarity. Every few pages, O’Donnell sparked in me a lost memory, a flash of childhood haze, a phrase long out of fashion because those who had spoken like that are now dead. There I was, inside my grandparents’ roadside stand, lying on the gentle incline of the display board coloring a picture while my Maw Maw waited for drivers to pull onto the gravel, tempted by bulging mesh bags of oranges. Or, as a thirteen-year-old, reading Chekhov between culling rotten tomatoes in my great-uncle’s stand. The specific crunch of oyster shells under my feet. The scent of rotting oranges. The give of a crawfish hole against my toe preparing for a kick.
Set in a fictional lower Plaquemines Parish town not far from my own, The Great Big Doorstep chronicles the Crochet family living in a rented shack on a Mississippi River batture. Patriarch Commodo is a disgraced riverboat captain-turned ditch digger who lives as a glutton while his hungry brood schemes to scratch out enough to eat (including pilfering oranges dropped from their landlord’s overloaded trees). For the teenaged children—Topal, Arthur and Evvie—New Orleans glimmers in the distance as a new beginning. In the meantime, they dream and grab what they can, which often arrives as unexpected detritus from the river. These little gifts—bananas dropped from cargo ships, peppers floating by—can never surpass their greatest prize of all: a set of grand front steps, of such grandeur and stature that they must have belonged to a planation upriver. It becomes their life’s mission to attain a home worthy of those steps—no matter that they have no money, no matter whom they’ve have to trick to get it. Until then, the great steps will lean against their shack. They’ll never nail them on, though, because the landlord might claim he owns them.
The Great Big Doorstep is a raucous comedy. As Bryan Giemza O’Donnell writes in his introduction to the reissue of the novel: “It’s hard to imagine that John Kennedy Toole could have written A Confederacy of Dunces without reading The Great Big Doorstep.”
As wildly entertaining as Toole’s novel and as wry as Walker Percy’s works, The Great Big Doorstep may just be the lost Louisiana classic that completes the canon.
O’Donnell was born in New Orleans, but he found his true place, his spiritual home, after walking the levees from the city down to Boothville, one of the last towns before the road meets the gulf. His stroll took him three weeks and it set the course of the rest of his life. By this time, he’d already met Sherwood Anderson, who’d encouraged him to write. His first novel, Green Margins (1936), sold 88,000 copies in its first year of publication. The Great Big Doorstep arrived in 1941, then debuted on Broadway in 1942. When The Great Big Doorstep had its first major reissue in 1979, Eudora Welty wrote the afterword, in which she explains the location: “a part of the country most of us never saw, had never known was on the map,” though she paints a striking portrait of it in her 1952 story “No Place for You, My Love.”
O’Donnell, more important than any plot point or joke about riverboat pilots, orange farmers or savvy country wives, speaks in the voices of these people, who work language with the kind of casual creativity writers toil toward. The sheer joy of expression gleams in these pages:
“The coffee gunna strong you soon, darling.”
“Better you’d dragass down the road with your brudda’s check to cash … instead tellin cotton bull stories.”
About a shooting star: “God’s throwin away his cigarette to go to bed.”
“The high-heeled shoes made her walk like a chicken with paper stuck to its legs.”
On talking too much: “You musta been vaccinated with a phonograph needle this mornin.”
“Evvie was trying to recall the savage tune they had heard, but her mind had closed around it, leaving a clear blank place, like an oath written in water.”
The Great Big Doorstep gave me back something I’d barely held. It made me look within while looking outward. At times, I wondered whether anyone not steeped in this culture could understand this book, which is why it’s prefect. It feels like it’s mine alone, but it has the power to be everyone’s. It can give me back something I thought I’d lost, but it can be also that new, uncharted world that someone else seeks. It’s the secret handshake anyone can learn.