FLOATING AIMLESSLY ALONG BAYOU ST. JOHN
My Bayou: New Orleans Through the Eyes of a Lover
by Constance Adler
My Bayou is a difficult book for me to review. I don’t like to focus on the negative, and this book certainly wasn’t without merit. Constance Adler is a skilled writer and there were times her reflections on life in New Orleans centering on her strolls along Bayou St. John intellectually intrigued me and other times where they emotionally moved me, yet for large stretches they also left me cold. Part of this was audience–I’m pretty sure I’m not her primary target–but part of it was the haphazard, wandering nature of her reflections. Adler is also an accomplished blogger, so it bothered me that I didn’t like this book because of the meandering format. The book struck me as a blog bound together in book form, though I’d like to think–hell, desperately hope–that this transition can be accomplished more naturally.
My Bayou opens with Adler’s reflections on moving to the city from New Jersey, and her focus on the Bayou St. John area between Gentilly and Mid-City is one of the book’s more interesting aspects, for, though a popular and well-to-do neighborhood beloved by locals, it is largely absent from literature and most tourists are largely unaware of its presence despite the fact that it is the very reason New Orleans exists as a city. Back when the French first landed, local Indians drew Iberville and Bienville’s attention to this bend in the river because it was only a short overland march to a ‘bayou,’ or slow-moving river, that connected to Lake Pontchartrain providing a quick outlet back to the sea. After his older brother Iberville’s death, Bienville ignored pressure from France to found a city closer to modern-day Baton Rouge and laid out what has become known as the French Quarter mainly because of its proximity to Bayou St. John. Thus, it’s good to see this tiny but important artery acknowledged.
A lot of time is devoted at the beginning, though, to Adler‘s devotion to her schizophrenic dog as she rationalizes his aggressive and erratic behavior, humanizing him in the manner that the most rabid of pet owners, often childless like Adler, do. I know animal lovers that may relate to the intricate detail of her devotion, but the long, rambling sections lost me. She also goes into glowing, vivid detail about her courtship with her yoga instructor husband, and it felt a bit to me like I was having tea with the girls. Again: not bad, just not me; however, when Adler eventually describes harvesting her menstrual blood for gardening and a personal cathartic ritual on the bayou, I felt quite confident and justified in my hesitance to place myself firmly in her congregation.
That’s not to say I didn’t find value or connection with this work. I was fascinated by Adler‘s explorations of vodou (as she points out the authentic spelling). Out of curiosity, she seeks out a sincere local vodou priestess and becomes both an enthusiastic participant and healthy skeptic. She faithfully attends rituals, yet points out the tale-tale signs of participants faking possession by Loa (spirits), such as engaging in the impish joking and groping that the spirits like to enjoy when they take sole control of your body, yet curiously only aiming it at the friends. Nevertheless, during one ceremony she experiences a brief and unexpected possession despite her skepticism and resistance, her body jerking around mysteriously beyond her control. Ever a skeptic, Adler doesn’t fully trusts her own experience, though she can’t fully dismiss it either. Her reluctance to draw a definite conclusion caused me, a fellow skeptic, to at least contemplate her story rather than simply rolling my eyes and moving on. As a writer, I also related to her mediations on her tendency to over-think and over-examine, almost crying aloud YES! when she confessed a desire to shut off her mind from time to time and live in the moment rather than feeling like an observer in her own life.
After her musings on her dog, her wedding, her neighbors, and local peculiarities such as vodou, Adler devotes the second half to her account of Katrina. Again, her experiences are certainly valid and her writing solid, but I’ve read so many Katrina stories by now that hers suffers by proximity and lack of drama. It sounds callous to say, for anyone living through that event suffered more than anyone ever need to, but she left early, stayed with family, and her house was largely untouched. Many other who dealt with much more have said much more much more succinctly. The theme that did resonate, though, was the slow dissolution of her marriage which expertly and subtly unfolds, for in real life we seldom see these things coming until it’s too late. This slowly building wedge took me as much by surprise as it did the author, especially after the glowing and lengthy account of their courtship, and the suspense of whether they would triumph or part ways was the main thing that kept me reading to the end. Although the root of their problem, her husband’s refusal to sire a child, would have cropped up whether the storm happened or not, the storm at the very least forced underlying problems to the surface and this pressure on relationships was a real effect of the storm that hasn’t been dealt with so honestly or artfully in other accounts I’ve read.
This book came to life during local writer workshops, perhaps another reason for its meandering, and Adler notes near the end that it was other writers who first began asking where Sean, her husband, was in the story. They saw the drift before she did. As she described the pain of having her wish rejected by her aloof husband, Adler‘s obsessive writer’s mind again caught my attention. Although she desperately wants a child, she also worries about the inherit paradox of selfish cruelty wrapped within this most selfless of acts, for to create life is to give a death sentence. To give birth to a new consciousness is to have that consciousness become aware of its own death. It is a thought that has occurred to me too as I’ve pondered whether I’ll ever take on this responsibility.
My Bayou was the last of a stack of books recommended by a local librarian, and I unabashedly loved all her other recommendations. Because of my mixed reaction to this one, though, I actually started it before other books that I’ve already finished and reviewed. Perhaps this was not the best book to read on a library deadline. Adler‘s reflections are slow and meandering, but often take you to interesting places and make you consider a different perspective. She spends a lot of time contemplating the bayou and the things floating randomly along it, at times even contributing to its clutter. Because of the slow current of the bayou she creates, My Bayou is probably better enjoyed when pulled off the shelf when you’re in a reflective mood and digested not linearly but by flipping through and cherry picking nuggets like a minister preparing a sermon.