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Three Feet High and Rising

Expat Baltimore writer and ex-Last Picture Show lead man Louis Maistros weaves a luring tale from New Orleans

Booker Maistros

By Joab Jackson | Posted 7/22/2009

Wander down the commercial district of Bourbon Street in New Orleans early any morning, and you may be amazed by how cleanly scrubbed the sidewalks are. You'd assume otherwise, given the influx of rowdy visitors the French Quarter gets on any given night. But city contractors hose the concrete down in the wee hours--washing away all the urine, spilled drinks, vomit, spit, cigarette butts, and other detritus from the previous night's touristy Bacchanalia.

To risk stating the obvious, the Big Easy has a long and complicated relationship with water, both its redemptive and destructive qualities. The two go hand-in-hand, to judge from reading The Sound of Building Coffins (Toby Press), the gritty and sometimes surreal second novel from Baltimore expat (and one-time City Paper contributor) Louis Maistros.

Maistros, who moved to New Orleans in the early 1990s, notes that even before Hurricane Katrina devastated the port city in 2005, "Everyone talked about when the big one would hit," he says by phone. Cityfolk understand the unstated deal with residency all too well, and live by its inherent tensions: The town is under sea level and the levees are ragged. One Category 5 hurricane could slam the town and the swell the surrounding water into the city streets, swamping everyone and everything.

Set in New Orleans circa 1891, Coffins starts with the kind of unease that has always lurked within the city: The baby son of an Italian immigrant becomes possessed by an evil demon spirit. This is not surprising, given that his father, along with 11 other Italian immigrants, was just lynched by an angry mob of townies. A newspaper reporter, feeling guilty for the sensationalist coverage that led to the lynching, helps out the child's mother by fetching a hoodoo medicine man known as Doctor Jack, who has a rep for being able to drive away the demon spirits, though by means not entirely holy.

For the job, Jack brings along a priest, Father Noonday Morningstar, along with Morningstar's teenage daughter Diphtheria and her younger brother Typhus; the priest named all his offspring after diseases because he "saw life as a trial and death as a reward, a bridge to paradise--and he saw God's mysterious afflictions of the body as holy paths to that salvation." Also recruited from the gin joint to be part of the demon-cleaning crew was a local cornet player with a particularly abrasive musical style named Buddy Bolden and a prison guard who carried around the recently slain Italian's right hand in a coffee tin for good luck.

Jack's efforts to drive the demon spirit out of the child prove only partially successful, however. Part of the spirit jumps into Typhus, though the child kept the darker half himself. And, taken up by the Holy Spirit, the guard stabbed Morningstar, killing him. The rest of the book follows Morningstar's offspring, as well as the others at the botched exorcism, over the following decades, as they struggle to make their way in the city.

The semi-possessed child rechristens himself as Jim Jam Jump, the Astounding Ratboy of Orleans Parish and Surrounding Territories, and teams with another Morningstar child, Dropsy, to run scams on tavern patrons. When Diphtheria turns 15, she turns to the lucrative but dangerous employ of prostitution, while brother Typhus, on behalf of Doctor Jack, carries aborted fetuses down to the river and sets them into the water in a mysterious act he calls "rebirthing." Bolden plays the local bars, aligning his discordant musical blowing to the secret knock that was used to get into that gin joint, the coupling of which gives birth to jazz.

There's a lot going on here, and such busyness is typical for Maistros: He was a man-on-the-music scene two decades ago in Baltimore. For a short spell, he played bass with the locally legendary punk band Thee Katatonix, building his chops at the Marble Bar and other Baltimore punk dives in the early 1980s. But he's best known for leading power-pop group Last Picture Show, which gathered some local acclaim in the late '80s, but failed to make the big leap to the national stage.

When that band splintered, Maistros focused more of his creative efforts on writing. His first effort at novel writing, the 2000-self-published The Big Punch, was "not very good," he now admits. Set in Baltimore during the second world war, it follows a Jack Dellus as he travels the underground to escape a murder rap. CP reviewer Hank Baker blasted the novel for historical inaccuracies, overripe prose, "empty religious perambulations," a convoluted and conspiratorial plot, and general lack of focus all around.

Like The Big Punch, Coffins covers a great deal of territory between its multiple plot lines and richness of detail, but Maistros has made some serious gains in lining up all of his book's elements into single direction. The multiple plot lines smoothly interlock like simultaneous horn solos in an early Louis Armstrong single, and the steady flow of closely observed details and dialogue are a consistent pleasure. The book's chief shortcoming is an over reliance on a blurry mix of magical realism and voodoo logic to skate through some of more the more difficult plot transitions. The authorial hand is given over a little too often to the superstitious belief of the characters rather than exploring those beliefs in a deeper manner.

But there is still much to enjoy here. Overall, it seems as if the cultural richness of New Orleans has proved a match for Maistros' wandering mind. One chapter describes in step-by-step detail how Dropsy and Jim Jam Jump, pretending not to know each other, work a few businessmen from Pennsylvania in a game of crooked dice: "Dropsy kept the tally and passed the derby--but when Jim's turn came this time, Dropsy made the switch. Dropsy was good at the switch, always subtle and smooth in the execution. But even had he been clumsy there was enough liquor in the Pennsylvanian travelers that they probably wouldn't have noticed."

Helpfully, the fuel for this book was not the writer's own bravado, but rather the voices and customs around him. The New Orleans gestalt, one of a few truly distinct cultures in the United States, draws from the customs of the French, Haitians, Spanish, the surrounding swamps, and from anybody else who either came down the Mississippi or in from the Gulf of Mexico to conduct business and have a good time.

The inspiration for the book actually came in part from Ike, a homeless musician who would occasionally visit the record store Maistros runs in New Orleans, Louie's Juke Joint (the store is now online-only). The man would stand before the counter and spin tales of dubious merit about local blues and R&B musicians, or about how he fended off attackers with his knife-welding skills. Factually, most of what he said was probably bullshit, but lyrically, his tales would sing. "It's helpful to hear people like Ike talk, because then you get a feel for the flow," Maistros says. To bridge the gap between today and the period the novel is set in, Maistros consulted a book published in 1867 that collected the first-person recounts of the New Orleans race riots that took place after the Civil War.

Most outsiders get the New Orleans accent wrong, Maistros notes. They tend to assume its a swooning southern drawl, or Cajun-speak. "Cajun county is Northwest Louisiana, toward Shreveport--you have to drive for hours to get to that way of talking," he says. In fact, when Maistros first arrived in New Orleans, he was surprised at how closely the New Orleans accent, often referred to as Brooklyn-on-the-Bayou, resembled Baltimorese.

"Before I moved here, I'd drive from Baltimore to New Orleans, and the more south I'd drive, the more southern the [vernacular] would be, until I hit New Orleans, where I'd suddenly feel I was in Essex," he says. New Orleans, like Baltimore, is a port town, and there is a "brotherhood" to such towns, Maistros feels. And, thanks to Maistros' drive south, those in Charm City may recognize some of their own port city and themselves in this book.

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