I blame Dennis Quaid. As a native of New Orleans, I am a tough critic of representations of New Orleans that purport to be authentic. In a review of the new cop television drama K-Ville, set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Slate exposed the many pitfalls of portraying New Orleans in film and on television. I had never heard the city called “the Big Easy” until the movie of the same name in which Dennis Quaid breaks out one of the worst Cajun accents ever documented. Movies that feature areas outside of New Orleans are usually centered around Deliverance-style depictions of Cajuns as murderous rednecks – tagline: “on the bayou no one can hear you scream!” Apparently, there is no Cajun Anti-Defamation League.
Books have a slightly better track record. Confederacy of Dunces is widely acknowledged as a literary masterpiece, as was Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Both novels won a Pulitzer Prize. William Faulkner lived in and wrote about New Orleans. National Book Award-winner Walker Percy called New Orleans home (and was instrumental in getting Confederacy published). Novels seem to do a better job with framing Louisiana in the proper perspective than film or television do. And yet, when confronted with contemporary novels that are set in Louisiana, skepticism is my first response.
I think that this skepticism is what kept me away from John Lee Burke’s novels for so long. His latest, The Tin Roof Blow Down, is the definitive post-Katrina novel – according to me. Despite glowing reviews, I was still reluctant to pick up Burke’s book based solely on the cover that depicts several over-used New Orleans clichés. French Quarter? Check. Dude playing the saxophone mournfully on a street corner? Check. Don’t even get me started on the author’s name being three times larger than the title.
This is the chip that I was carrying on my shoulder when a friend told me about Ken Well’s new book Crawfish Mountain. I feared the worst, but I decided to give it a go based on the trusted positive review of the author’s previous work. I’m happy to report that Crawfish Mountain is an entertaining book that gracefully avoids the potential pitfalls while portraying a Louisiana that is recognizable to people who have actually been there. And look at that cover! It actually looks like something that an artistically inclined relative would paint on an old piece of cypress to hang up at the fishing camp.
Wells is from a small town in Louisiana. He is also a journalist (formerly with the Wall Street Journal and now an editor with Portfolio magazine). These two facts go a long way towards explaining the book’s great eye for detail and its realistic dialog. Cajun phrases (English and French) are sprinkled throughout the book in the way that people actually talk in southern Louisiana. The dialog included some sayings that I have not heard since my grandparents passed away. I had to call my mother more than once to pass some of these along. This aspect of the book alone was a gift, but there is a fun and meaningful story in there as well.
The book centers on a Cajun recreational fisherman, Jason Pitre, who has inherited a fishing camp, the titular Crawfish Mountain, on a cheniére (an area of high ground) deep in the Louisiana wetlands. The idyll is threatened by the plans of unscrupulous Texas oil man whose world view revolves around dollars, power plays, and a lifelong Napoleon complex. Illegal dumping of hazardous oilfield wastes and plans to railroad a questionable right-of-way for a new pipeline places Crawfish Mountain at risk, as well as the surrounding pristine wetlands. Pitre is forced to fight back against the powerful business and political forces arrayed against him, which may include the colorful Louisiana Governor, to save his endangered way of life and his beloved bayous.
The novel takes place almost entirely in rural Louisiana with occasional forays into Baton Rouge, the capital and center of Louisiana politics. If New Orleans is mentioned at all, it is merely in passing. The destruction of New Orleans is not part of the primary “message” of this book. Hurricane Katrina is also not a central to this novel. The thoughtless destruction of Louisiana’s wetlands began well before Katrina, and the hurricane’s inclusion would be a distraction from the human bad actors that helped to enable, at least in part, the crushing devastation that resulted from Katrina. The villains here are greedy corporations, politicians on the take, and the always culpable Corps of Engineers.
If the book sounds vaguely like a Carl Hiaasen novel, you may be onto something. A blurb by Tom Wolfe says it rather plainly, “Ken Wells is the Cajun Carl Hiaasen.” Hiassen himself says, “No writer brings Louisiana’s wondrous bayou country to life more vividly, or with more affection, than Ken Wells.” Wells does not suffer from the comparison. Like Hiaasen, Wells uses the novel form to convey a message in an way that doesn’t feel like homework. In the Acknowledgements, Wells says:
Not all books have goals, but I did have one here: to attempt to tell a fun story about a serious subject, the decimation of Louisiana’s wetlands, which have been under siege from a variety of mostly man-made forces over the past several decades.
It’s nice to have a set of clearly articulated goals to compare against when you’re reviewing a novel. In my reading of this novel, Wells does more than just meet these goals. This is an entertaining novel that pits a likable underdog against black hat villains, while also telling the important story of how Louisiana’s wetlands, on the same scale as Florida’s Everglades, are under serious threat. I couldn’t put it down. If you’re a fan of Hiaasen novels or are interested in reading a realistic portrayal of Cajun people, I highly recommend Crawfish Mountain.