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Louisiana Breakdown

by Lucius Shepard

Illustrated by JK Potter; foreword by Poppy Z Brite; afterword by JK Potter
(Golden Gryphon, $21.95, 145 pages, hardback; April 2003.)

Somewhere in Louisiana, USA -- or, to be more cover scanaccurate, in the country called American Gothic -- is the small town of Grail, filled with drunks, the jobless, bigots and centuries-old tradition. More centuries than there have been white human beings here, it seems, for the town's central tradition is that of the May Queen. Every twenty years, as part of a deal done with The Good Gray Man, the folk of Grail must appoint a ten-year-old girl as the new May Queen; she will, it is believed, draw all the town's bad luck to her during her period of tenure.

The current May Queen is Vida Dumars, and her reign will end tomorrow when the Good Gray Man comes to claim her as his bride. She has no thought of bucking her fate until drifting into town comes guitarist Jack Mustaine. As he slowly pieces together the town's -- and Vida's -- secret, the pair become lovers, and the dream dawns in Vida of running far, far away with him and escaping the Good Gray Man...

Brite's foreword to this short novel tells us, helpfully, that unless we're from Louisiana we won't really "get" this tale; Lucius Shepard must be wondering who his friends are. Be that as it may, this Scottish reader felt he was "getting" it OK; the dialect is easy enough to follow after a few brief moments of splashing around in it, uncertain if one will sink or swim. And that's an apt metaphor, because the richness of the swirling prose Shepard manages to draw from the dialect does make the experience of reading this tale feel like a languorous swim in waters that are placid but, one is aware, deceptively so: powerful currents hide below.

There are many moments of incidental sweetness here. The jukebox in the local bar, Le Bon Chance, contains records of past and future events. Nedra Hawes, the local psychic, seems at first a perfectly ordinary middle-aged woman, but makes no secrets about her pretty young black girlfriend, Arlise -- who's one of the most winning characters in the book. Local Sicilian petty crime boss Joe Dill has an outrageously sexy Vietnamese concubine, Tuyet, who may or may not be a witch and, indeed, may or may not control Dill.

Like all Golden Gryphon's output, this is a beautifully produced book, although Potter's interior illustrations, while nice enough, seem nothing special. The character portrayals are enjoyable, with Grail itself the most central character of all; and the story serves well. But what really holds one is the writing -- this sea of words in which one swims.

Louisiana Breakdown is a slight book, but a very engaging one.

Review by John Grant.

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