Reading Mardi Gras: A Year Carnival Skipped New Orleans

By Jennifer Levasseur
 

Each year during Mardi Gras season, I’m drawn back to my favorite New Orleans novels, ones that pull me closer to home and help me move inside that particular consciousness. With a few pages of The Moviegoer or City of Refuge, I’m there in my city—even though I’m actually on the other side of the world—at this raucous (and, yes, sometimes annoying) time, wondering if I’ll get stuck in parade traffic, planning shopping and other excursions with a parade schedule on hand, looking at the store shelves piled high with king cakes and parents in yards checking the structural integrity of their kids’ Mardi Gras ladder.

Regardless of my conflicted feelings about this holiday—as I wrote about here last year—there’s something enlivening about this season, which builds from early January when we’ve barely recovered from Christmas and New Year and culminates forty-seven days before Easter. Say what you want about New Orleanians: we know how to keep the holidays rolling from one to the next.

I thought I might be in New Orleans this year for Mardi Gras, fulfilling my promise to get into the spirit of Carnival and its restorative grotesque by masking, but that hasn’t worked out. So here I am looking to mark the days without any of the trappings. My most important tasks: choose a favorite New Orleans novel to reread, preferably one that has something to do with Mardi Gras, and bake my own king cake.

 Photo by Kevin Rabalais

Photo by Kevin Rabalais

After much waffling, I struck on the perfect pick for this year: a novel in which the city’s residents must do without Mardi Gras, without butter, without sugar, all those palpable absences. Since its inception one hundred sixty years ago, Carnival has been cancelled only a handful of times, mostly because of war. Parades even rolled just six months after the deluge that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Josh Russell’s 2010 novel, My Bright Midnight, unfolds mainly during 1945, when German POWs filled the streets and shored up the levee, rations threatened local bakeries, FDR died, Mardi Gras was cancelled for the fourth consecutive year, and citizens were forced to confront their fears, anger, frustration and drudgery without the release valve of Carnival.

The narrator of My Bright Midnight, Munich-born Walter Schmidt, has lived in New Orleans for twenty years, flattening his accent and taking up citizenship, at first trying to lose himself in the city as penance for a terrible lie that destroyed lives in Germany. After he eats himself obese (not a challenge in a city that fries and smothers everything in decadent sauces) and soothes his loneliness in cinemas, he befriends two likewise hefty, solitary souls: smooth-talking, domineering Sammy and beautiful Nadine, a young war widow. These two strangers with deep secrets of their own become his universe. Sammy puts them all on a crash diet, and with camaraderie the three slough off the excess weight and forge bonds that will change everything. The newly slim Walter and Nadine marry, and he buys with cash the little Uptown house she chooses. Only after they move in does he realize that all of their neighbors are Nadine’s former in-laws. She still wears a locket with Bobby’s photo around her neck, and now they’re entrenched in his family who refuse to speak to her. This is not the love triangle that should bother Walter, though. As his best friend Sammy reminds him time and again, “You owe me for this,” a casual comment that will transform into threat and be flipped inside out.

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In fewer than one hundred forty pages, My Bright Midnight chronicles the legacy of secrets and lies that follow across oceans, the will to become other than what you are, the messy landscape of love and friendship, and the character of a city.

As Walter walks and rides the streetcar to his job at Hubig’s Pies (a beloved New Orleans institution destroyed in a 2012 fire), he fights the sensation that something about his glorious new life is terribly wrong. He has a loving new wife when he thought he’d be alone forever (so what if she’s obsessed with her deceased first husband?); a friend who made this new life possible (but where does all of his money come from?); and a job he does well and which allows him to be part of something bigger. There’s little decadence, and the day-to-day is still a challenge, but he has found his place: “Everyone who worked at Hubig’s helped by breaking the rationing rules and giving the bakery what they could: a pound of sugar, a dozen eggs, a tire so the trucks could deliver. It was better to drink your morning coffee black—or skip it—than to go without a job.”

Two unusual days threaten his precarious stability: the bakery runs out of eggs and so he goes home early, much earlier than he—or his wife—expect. The following day, a retuned soldier comes to work at the bakery and snarls when he hears Walter’s last name. The man, the foreman’s cousin, spews a litany of insults against Walter’s homeland, his Irish wife, his manhood. Walter whacks him with the custard pot. After six years of dedicated service, he’s fired.

“What kind of man was I?” he asks himself. “I thought I knew the answer: good husband, good American, good friend.” These days and his responses to them shake even that certainty.

Josh Russell has proved himself a faithful, devoted chronicler of New Orleans history, as well as a riveting storyteller. His first novel, Yellow Jack, follows the city’s 1840s yellow fever epidemic and its role in early photography. He creates the kind of historical novels that feel utterly natural, seemingly sourced from memory rather than research. He is slow to explain the motivations of his characters, since, as in life, they are often conflicted or even unknown.

While Mardi Gras is notably absent in My Bright Midnight, the trio of main characters devise a release of their own, one that allows them to enact other roles and to forget, if only for a little while, what has destroyed their friendship and forced them to (temporarily) flee their city. During an impromptu (and forced) trip to Florida, they shed their accepted roles, and are in effect rebirthed in the waters of the gulf. While they return to New Orleans just days later, they are new versions of themselves, liberated by the change and by its ability to allow them other ways of living and of imagining themselves and each other. Which is exactly the role of Carnival.

While I won’t be there to take part in the spectacle of Mardi Gras this year, I’ll be watching to see the subversive costuming, the clever political statements and the leveling activity that makes everyone equal, irreverent and free—if only for one wild day each year. That wild day that can fuel the rest, if we let it.

 

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