Skip to navigation – Site map
1. « Regards croisés sur la Nouvelle-Orléans : la cité décalée » / “Perspectives on New Orleans, the Misfit City”
IV/ Réfractions littéraires et cinématographiques / Literary and cinematographic refractions

Dusk can be a magical time in the French Quarter”: Richard Ford’s New Orleans before and after Katrina in “Puppy” and “Leaving for Kenosha”

Gérald PRÉHER

Abstracts

Richard Ford has often claimed that he does not consider himself a Southern writer despite being born and raised in Mississippi. Apart from his first two novels, most of his works are set in the North (sometimes the Far North) but, since he lived in New Orleans for some time and knows the city very well, he has devoted two short stories to that singular city. In “Puppy” (2001) and “Leaving for Kenosha” (2008), Ford makes use of various clichés associated with the city; the characters’ behavior is also justified by their living there—space and self being intimately related. Focusing on the description of the city in the two stories, this article points out the gap between the flamboyant city of the past and its present ruins since the 2005 hurricane Katrina. Both stories rely on the dysfunction brought about by an intruder and as the narratives come to an end, some kind of balance has been restored because the life of the city takes over.

Top of page

Full text

From the ruins, it’s not easy to know what’s best to think.
Richard Ford, “A City Beyond the Reach of Empathy”

  • 1 On the penultimate page, Rae asks Quinn: “‘What’re we going to do in New Orleans?’” and he replies (...)

1Mississippi-born Richard Ford has often claimed that he does not feel like a southern writer though he is proud to say he is a southerner. Yet, his first two novels are undeniably southern. A Piece of My Heart (1976) takes place in the South and New Orleans is mentioned several times in relation to one of the characters’ pasts, mainly in relation to death—murders, bloody accidents, suicide. The Ultimate Good Luck, Ford’s second novel, takes the reader further South, to Mexico, and is again a violent story in which New Orleans appears as the characters’ next destination,1 where danger, though present, will not be so noticeable as it is in Mexico: “Mexican cities at a distance […] gave you a different illusion from American cities. They looked like dream oases, whereas American cities looked like disassembled nightmares, but the facts were reversed and American cities were better places when you got there” (15). Ford’s breakthrough novel, The Sportswriter, is set in New Jersey and is more concerned with mainstream America than it is with the South. Nevertheless, the eponymous character, who, just like his creator, has left the South (19), reflects upon his writing a novel that was set there:

[it] was to be about a bemused young southerner who joins the Navy but gets discharged with a mysterious disease, goes to New Orleans and loses himself into a hazy world of sex and drugs and rumored gun-running and a futile attempt to reconcile a vertiginous present with the guilty memories of not dying alongside his Navy comrades, all of which is climaxed in a violent tryst with a Methodist minister’s wife who seduces him in an abandoned slave-quarters, though other times too, after which his life is shattered and he disappears permanently into the Texas oil fields. It was told in a series of flashbacks. (42)

2All the clichés associated with New Orleans are present here and the reader can easily recognize a mixture of the elements Ford used in his first two novels. However, the sportswriter does not get very far with his novel since the manuscript is lost in the mail and “naturally [he] hadn’t kept a copy” (42). Writing in New Jersey seems to offer more possibilities in fact because “New Orleans defeats itself. It longs for a mystery it doesn’t have and never will, if it ever did” (54). It seems that Ford’s narrator does not regret the loss of his manuscript because for him New Orleans as a place is too much of a fabrication which makes it “hard for a literalist to contemplate the world” (54). The problem for the narrator is that New Orleans is too different from the rest of the country and as a result he feels a bit disoriented. In his essay “New Orleans Mon Amour,” Walker Percy provides a possible explanation for the character’s feelings: “New Orleans is both intimately related to the South and yet in a real sense cut adrift not only from the South but from the rest of Louisiana, somewhat like Mont-St.-Michel awash at high tide” (11-12). Ford does not completely concur with Percy on that matter and he explained what he meant in a 1997 interview:

New Orleans steeps itself in its history and obfuscates all of its fundamental urbanness and modern problems by turning its head, by letting there be so many variant views of the city. […] it deludes itself that it’s ‘the city that care forgot,’ it deludes itself into believing that it’s ‘the Big Easy,’ it deludes itself into sort of somehow living up to all of its sobriquets. The fact is it’s a great big urban complex with a theme park in the middle, and everything else about New Orleans is just like every other city in America. […] The city has had a hard time over the years facing facts. (Interview with Guagliardo 158-59)

  • 2 He did so in Canada, his latest novel published in 2012. The Lay of the Land (2006), the third volu (...)

3Ford’s point is that the city has been used and abused so much so that it has lost touch with reality—“there isn’t a past to look back on” (Interview with Guagliardo 159)—it keeps changing for the better or sometimes the worse. It is, of course, the worse that inspires writers, for it gives them the tension that is needed for fiction to work. In two stories, “Puppy” (2001) and “Leaving for Kenosha” (2008), Ford sets the action in the fabled city and plays with the various clichés that have made New Orleans what it is—at once attractive and scary, fascinating and repulsive. The short story makes it possible for Ford to provide the reader with slices of life in which the city is as important as the action. For him, fiction “has to be plausible” and therefore he likes to have the action “occur someplace, [it does not] happen in someone’s mind, there’s always a figurative and also a literal landscape on which these events occur” (Transfuge interview). This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why, unlike other writers, Ford has hardly ever prefaced his works suggesting their location had been “geographically modified”2—it seems that he is more interested in rooting his stories in very concrete or mythologized places that will speak to his readers. New Orleans, in both texts, is almost a character. Focusing on the description of the city in the two stories, this article endeavors to show how the texts present the gap between the flamboyant city of the past and its state since the 2005 hurricane Katrina. Rooted in the ordinary, both texts depict the characters’ responses to the city—it is mythical but frightening, ruined but living. Ford shows how the city can sometimes appear as a distorted mirror that reveals something to those who try to decipher its message.

1. Ordinary Lives in the (Ex)Mythical City

4The two stories are about upper-middle class people—both of the male characters are lawyers—who have to face their fears as ordinary events turn out to have more importance than they initially expected. In “Puppy,” Bobby and Sallie need to find a way to get rid of a puppy that “someone left inside the back gate of [their] house” (“Puppy” 75). As the plot develops, the dog’s presence becomes more and more oppressive and the couple’s fears for its stability start to emerge. In “Leaving for Kenosha,” it is a visit to a friend of Walter Hobbes’ daughter who is about to move to Wisconsin that sets the plot in motion: as the story unfolds, memories of Walter’s past and of the city’s better days intermingle, leading the character to reconsider his life in the midst of a broader disaster. The narrative strategies employed by Ford seem to mirror his own estrangement from the city after Katrina. In “Puppy,” first published in 2001, he uses a first person narrator whereas in “Leaving for Kenosha,” which came out in 2008, he resorts to a third-person hetero-diegetic narrator with a focalizer. The narrator’s comments reveal a whole new geography for the city that takes shape at the same time as the character’s life story unfolds, thus suggesting their common disastrous nature. Yet, there seems to be hope, for the opening paragraph focuses on surviving places in the city and on the father’s reunion with his daughter:

It was the anniversary of the disaster. Walter Hobbes was on his way uptown to pick up his daughter, Louise, at Trinity. She had the dentist at four. Then the two of them were going for a hilariously early dinner at the place Louise liked—Papa Andre’s—out on the Chef Highway, a roadhouse on stilts that the flood had missed. Then they were going back to his condo for her homework and a Bill Murray movie. This was New Orleans. (“Kenosha”)

5If the city is eventually named, the reference to “the” disaster in the first sentence, the mention of specific places and of “the” flood might have led the reader to that conclusion since the use of definite articles obviously hints at shared knowledge. The numerous activities that are generally associated with New Orleans seem to be forgotten and they have been replaced by mainstream American movies. Everything has been practically organized and the only trace of excitement has a bitter taste—“a hilariously early dinner.”

6The first paragraph of “Puppy” also bears a reference to New Orleans, but the general context is very different:

Early this past spring someone left a puppy inside the back gate of our house, and then never came back to get it. This happened at a time when I was travelling up and back to St. Louis each week, and my wife was intensely involved in the AIDS marathon, which occurs, ironically enough, around tax time in New Orleans and is usually the occasion for a lot of uncomfortable, conflicted spirits, which inevitably get resolved, of course, by good will and dedication. (“Puppy” 75)

  • 3 Sallie tells Bobby how she feels “‘altering a small part changes everything’” (“Puppy” 79).

7In this story there seems to be more entertainment happening, even though some problems crop up. The emphasis is placed on repetition (“usually”) and expectations (“inevitably”) for an event that is related to virus and infection. All the ingredients for the story are there and two pairs can be made out: husband/wife, puppy/virus. Throughout the narrative, these pairs will become more meaningful as their development defines the tension at the core: there is either attraction—the puppy becoming the actual virus—or repulsion—as husband and wife grow further and further apart. The “good will” and “dedication” of the couple to dispose of the dog eventually succeeds—the animal shelter will keep him—but the issue of the parasite that has shaken the whole structure3 is far from solved as the story comes to a close. The narrator is guilt-ridden when he leaves the reader, confirming a point he had made earlier: “fate was ineluctable, and character, personality, will, even untamable nature were only its accidental by-products” (“Puppy” 86).

8Movement is one of the key elements in both stories and each time it is triggered by an apparently banal activity: taking a daughter to the dentist’s or to a friend’s; taking a lost puppy to a shelter. Here movement has to do with discovery—of the city but also of the self. As Line Koïs has shown, Bobby is forced to explore his neighborhood and as he means to put an end to the puppy’s wandering status, he too becomes a wanderer (104-5). Though he meant to bring the dog with him, thinking “someone could recognize him, or just take a look at him” (“Puppy”80), he is forced to go alone because he cannot put the dog on a leash. His exploration of the city really begins then: he steps into a “disreputable block across from the French Market that includes a seedy commercial strip” and there he sees “a group of the young people Sallie had accused of abandoning the puppy” (“Puppy” 82). Since Bobby lives in “the fashionable historical district” (“Puppy” 75), the expedition amounts to a culture shock: everything seems illicit and he can picture one of the boys on “a website devoted to runaways” (“Puppy” 83). New Orleans appears as a “city of extraordinary contradictions” as Thomas Bonner, Jr. puts it (“New Orleans” 198) or at least as a city of extraordinary contrasts.

9If fear and suspicion are central to Bobby’s uncanny experience of the city, for Walter, in “Leaving for Kenosha,” sadness and mournful feelings stand out as he enters “the part of town where many houses had been destroyed by the hurricane, two years ago” (“Kenosha”). As the narrator describes the surroundings, the tension between the father and his daughter deteriorates as if the outside were influencing the inside:

They were driving out St. Claude Avenue, a wide parched boulevard through an old, mostly black section of shut-down schools, closed appliance stores with their wrecked appliances set out on the sidewalk, closed and boarded Burger Kings and Hardee’s, distressed gas stations and shabby bars. Many of the passing ruined houses were still marked in the cruciform code of the National Guard from two years back. Few people were on the streets, and only every other traffic light seemed to be working. (“Kenosha”)

10The sight makes Walter feel uncomfortable but instead of sympathizing with the victims—the outside—it is his own ruins he is contemplating: “Louise was officially mortified by his faulty card selection, which made Walter disheartened, since it meant she’d be resentful and irritable the rest of the night. The one night of the week that was theirs, and when he’d made nice plans” (“Kenosha”). There is a sharp contrast between the narrator’s description of the district and the character’s response to it. It is as if he had completely obliterated the sight and refocused on his own turmoil. In fact the reader might assume that the darkness of Walter’s thoughts stems from what he sees and duplicates his malaise—considering that for him “the fact that his daughter ground her teeth seemed a small, bitter tragedy” (“Kenosha”), which is the reason for her visit to the dentist’s, her reaction to his picking the wrong greetings card for her friend should not be so disproportionate. He has become a “stranger to himself,” to use Julia Kristeva’s expression and since he fails to recognize it—Kristeva suggests that “By recognizing our uncanny strangeness, we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside” (Strangers 192)—he suffers from it inside. Louise wanted a card “‘with a New Orleans theme’” (“Kenosha”) but the narrator’s description makes it clear that the city has lost its appeal and Walter has found it difficult to choose an appropriate one. As Sophie Vallas explains, “a mythical city is quite different from an imaginary creation simply made as true to life as possible; it is a city conceived of as a meaningful place, with a symbolical dimension…” (244). After Katrina, New Orleans’ mythical dimension became a thing of the past and its former meaning too painful to think about—Walter’s choice would have been wrong anyway because nothing in what is left to see could make Louise’s friend “‘remember everything down here when she’s gone and be miserable to come back’” (“Kenosha”). New Orleans, as one of the cities described in The Ultimate Good Luck, “[has been] eclipsed in a dream” (64).

2. The Remains of the Past

11Freud’s concept of the uncanny comes in handy considering that it refers to something that should have remained hidden and secret but is exposed (132). In “Puppy,” it has to do with the narrator’s insecurity regarding his marriage, but the case is more complicated in “Leaving for Kenosha” since Walter does not admit to anything—the narrator clarifies everything for the reader from his god-like perspective. As a result, if “Puppy” reads like an intradiegetic sketch in which Bobby is willing to tell his story, “Leaving for Kenosha” relies on the distance between the narrator and the character who cannot face the facts that haunt him—Kristeva would say: “The negation of that fundamental loss opens up the realm of signs for us, but the mourning is often incomplete. It drives out negation and revives the memory of signs by drawing them out of their signifying neutrality. It loads them with affects, and this results in making them ambiguous, repetitive or simply alliterative” (Black Sun 42). The narrator thus reads the signs for the reader to interpret them.

  • 4 Ford has not commented on this short story so far but his choice was probably not of a random natur (...)

12The story’s second paragraph recounts how Walter lost his wife’s love to another man and failed to keep her from leaving. Since then, “often at night, Walter Hobbes would lie awake in his apartment high above the broad curved sweep of the river, where container ships and tankers hung at anchor, their white running lights illuminating bits of the dense breezy darkness, and wonder what had caused Betsy to suddenly need to be divorced from him” (“Kenosha”). In this description, the location once again plays a key part—it figuratively echoes the situation at hand: Walter’s separation from Betsy—significantly named like the 1965 hurricane4—constitutes a broad curve in his life and he has somehow become one of those container ships, unable to open up or leave the harbor. Although the ships and tankers bring light to his room, Walter is still in the dark.

13Likewise when he goes to the dentist’s office after selecting the greetings card, Walter tries to read between the lines when the dentist hints at the conversation he has had with Louise: “Loss, divorce, disaster had obviously been part of their secret discussion” (“Kenosha”). Again, Walter is looking at everything through the prism of his haunted mind. Mentioning the season and connecting it with the anniversary of the catastrophe, the dentist somehow expresses a feeling that applies both to the city and to Walter: “‘A loss becomes its own elemental presence’” (“Kenosha”). Unsurprisingly Walter does not make anything out of those words, instead he changes topics and asks about Louise’s teeth. This shift is meaningful since the girl will be the first to bring up her parents’ divorce later on: “‘Why did you get divorced?’” (“Kenosha”) to which Walter replies he does not know. His real answer is to be traced in what he sees at that moment: “a Charbonnet Street sign up ahead. It was a paper placard someone had nailed to a telephone pole in place of the regular sign, which had disappeared. Up and down the creosote pole were other placards advertising ‘Demolición de su Casa’” (“Kenosha”). With this description, Ford seems to be back with his favorite theme, the lack of communication between individuals. In an interview, he explained that “The failure of human beings to communicate physically, vocally, spiritually, is something I’ve always been interested in […]. Something worth writing about” (Transfuge interview). In the story, the reference to the telephone pole together with signs announcing an impending destruction prove that for Walter it is the things he sees outside that resonate inside even if he cannot fully register them. When Louise forces him to acknowledge his responsibility, which he does, he finds no proper justification apart from the fact that “‘Nature never likes to be observed […]. Though some things’d be better if it did. At least a little. Sometimes’” (“Kenosha”). A comment that is opaque for Louise—and because the viewpoint is limited—also for the reader. Walter thus succeeds in cutting the conversation short with everyone—the narrator included, since until the end of that section, no focalization seems possible.

14Bobby is much easier to follow but he too feels the need to position himself in relation to the city before he can interact with Sallie. When both of them are at home on the day Bobby has put up his signs, his wife starts crying

because of disturbing things she’d seen and heard at the AIDS hospice that afternoon, and because of various attitudes—typical New Orleans attitudes, she thought—voiced by some of the marathon organizers, which seemed callous and constituted right things done for wrong reasons, all of which made the world seem—to her, at least—an evil place. I have sometimes thought she might’ve been happier if we had chosen to have children or, failing that, if we’d settled someplace other than New Orleans, someplace less parochial and exclusive, a city like St. Louis, in the wide Middle West—where you can be less personally involved in things but still be useful. New Orleans is a small town in so many ways. And we are not from here. (“Puppy” 83-84)

  • 5 For instance, see Richard Ford, The Sportswriter (58).

15Bobby thus blames everything on the city and its people’s mentality. He feels like a displaced person who cannot help revisiting his life to see where it went wrong. The structure of the passage is also revealing: the accumulation of information that appears within dashes indicates an attempt to justify a point whether Bobby has a concurring or dissenting opinion. The use of parataxis to present the last two comments confirms that in Bobby’s mind New Orleans is not a suitable place for the couple to flourish. Still, his choice of place remains a bit dubious, judging that he later describes St. Louis as “a nice cordial city, though not distinguished in any way” (“Puppy” 93) and has told the reader that he was suspicious of one of the boys in the group of young people he met in the city because of his “nasally midwestern accent” (“Puppy” 83). It seems that Bobby means to say that he longs for an ordinary life in an unpretentious city—he is thus reminiscent of Ford’s sportswriter who celebrates his New Jersey city for its banality.5

16In St. Louis, where he has to work and spend the night, Bobby has a strange dream, which is closely related to his adopted place and the puppy he does not wish to keep:

In my dream I’d gone on a duck-hunting trip into the marsh that surrounds our city. […] when I was set out in the blind with my shotgun, I found that beside me on the wooden bench was one of my law partners, seated with his shotgun between his knees, and wearing strangely red canvas hunting clothes—something you’d never wear in a duck blind. And he had the puppy with him, the same one that was then in our back garden awaiting whatever its fate would be. […] The man was Paul Thompson, a man I (outside my dream) have good reason to believe once had an affair with Sallie, an affair that almost caused us to split apart without our even ever discussing it, except that Paul, who was older than I am and big and rugged, suddenly died—actually in a duck blind, of a terrible heart attack. It is a thing that can happen in the excitement of shooting. (“Puppy” 93-94)

  • 6 For example, in The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1920(...)

17Bobby goes on describing his dream until the end of the section but the uncanny dimension is already noticeable here through the use of “strangely” and the description of Paul’s inappropriate garments. His wearing red clothes already foreshadows the sin Bobby is to reveal but what is important is that his dream is given a specific place—New Orleans, a place where according to Thomas Bonner Jr. “beginnings and endings merge” (“Literary Center” 13). The dream itself has to do with beginnings and endings as it describes the early moments of the hunting trip and Paul’s heart attack during such an occasion. If the puppy’s fate is uncertain, Paul’s is already sealed. The fact that he dies of a heart attack and that he is presented as Sallie’s lover also has to do with New Orleans as a “great southern Babylon” known for its erotic excesses and sexual freedom6—Sallie’s involvement in the AIDS marathon thus constitutes an ironic counterpoint. As Marie Liénard-Yeterian puts it, in the South, “order and disorder co-exist” (161), something that is even truer of Bobby’s New Orleans because a puppy has unsettled everything for him and his wife. In his dream, the dog “kept staring at [him]” (“Puppy” 94) as if he were reproaching Bobby for something—his inability to communicate his suspicions to Sallie?; his ability to “let potentially difficult matters go singing off into oblivion” (“Puppy” 80)? No answer will be given to the reader but the puppy will keep on haunting Bobby and will lead him into an exploration of the darker district of the city—where the animal shelter is located. In addition, his feeling that “dusk can be a magical time in the French Quarter—the sky so bright blue, the streets lush and shadowy” (85) points out the dual identity of the city that is, just like him, clearly mysterious—to use another oxymoron. Walter has a similar experience as he reaches the home of his daughter’s friend.

3. Otherness Within and Without

18In the two short stories, the characters’ experiences of the cityscape have a tremendous impact on their perception of themselves. “Travelling,” as Liliane Kerjan explains in an article on Ford’s first two collections of stories “brings [the characters’] lives into perspective because during this time apart, a meditation on what is central and what is peripheral, on what is essential and what is trivial, and more importantly on the place of the subject, is outlined and gradually filled in” (40). In “Leaving for Kenosha,” the district Walter drives through is described thoroughly: “Charbonnet Street was a long street of wreckages. Where the floodwater had hurtled through, houses had been flattened, others moved off their foundations, others had their roofs floated away. Though others—the compact, sturdy brick ones—had simply been ruined in a way that left them seeming almost whole. Weeds flourished in lots with concrete slabs that once had supported houses” (“Kenosha”). The consequences of the hurricane are visible even two years after the disaster and this anniversary takes the reader back to the opening section where another anniversary was mentioned, that of the couple Betsy ruined when she lured Mitch into her web. If that “anniversary didn’t quite come off” (“Kenosha”), people in New Orleans are forced to see that the hurricane struck two years previously—such anniversaries do matter and they mean that a constant re-evaluation of the citizens’ needs is required. But people also have their personal drama and when something goes wrong, “It had become fashionable to blame bad things on the hurricane—things that would’ve certainly happened anyway—failures, misdeeds, infirmities of character that the hurricane could’ve had nothing to do with. As if life weren’t its own personalized storm” (“Kenosha”). Put together, these two quotations suggest that Walter himself feels the hurricane has something to do with his current situation: it is not responsible for it but it is living proof of his state. From the outside he does seem “whole” like some of the buildings and yet he has been “moved off [his] foundations” and is still broken inside, in need of repair. The sight is so shocking that even Louise has stopped talking, her only comment is that it is “horrible” but Walter does not have anything to contribute (“There was nothing Walter felt needed to be said” [“Kenosha”]).

  • 7 The story sometimes reads like social realism, especially when the narrator comments on people’s ac (...)

19Louise’s friend is an African-American and, as they drive towards her place, Walter keeps thinking how hard her community was hit by the hurricane as most of them live in poor districts. Earlier, when he entered Wal-Mart he had noticed that “no one here looked like him, which made him eager to get his business over with and leave. The general feeling inside the great merchandise biosphere, stretching in hazy light almost, but not quite, farther than you could see, was of people—citizens, families, shoppers, people in wheelchairs, people in motorized carts, children wandering on their own – all staying on, making an afternoon of Wal-Mart, taking their leisure as if this were home, letting Wal-Mart be what their day offered them” (“Kenosha”). The store—probably one of the only public places around with air-conditioning—has become a social center, a gathering place for people without a purpose. If air-conditioning has been perceived as one of the improvements of southern life, keeping people together or bringing them back together (see Hobson) when they had left because of the climate. Katrina could have led to more migration but the episode suggests that the survivors have found a way to survive together thanks to air-conditioned spaces that keep them from the outside chaos. The scene at the store also suggests that it is not because people do not want to leave, but because they cannot afford it, unlike the parents of Louise’s friend. When he reaches St. Claude, Walter’s reflection is telling: it “was no place to have a wreck. People were in a bad mood here. And there were no police around to save you” (“Kenosha”). The use of parataxis is instrumental again—though the three sentences could be connected, they are presented as an accumulation of thoughts that cannot be accounted for, thus confirming the general feeling of fragmentation.7

20Ultimately the city has a cathartic effect on Walter—seeing other people’s misery makes him understand that his plight is not that desperate (“‘I’m hangin’ in [...], I guess that’s what I’m doing,’” he tells the father of Louise’s friend). When he heads back home with Louise, he cannot help looking out the window again, thinking that the city “always seemed to be where it shouldn’t when you saw it from a distance. […] And he’d thought, What a laughable mistake to put a city here. Nothing ever promised good for it” (“Kenosha”). Meeting strangers who are about to move northward seems to have put ideas into Walter’s mind, the story leaves it open—“Walter experienced a sensation of something being about to happen around him” (“Kenosha”)—, but there does not seem to be much of a future for Walter in a city where his past is ever so present.

21The general atmosphere as Bobby and Sallie take the dog to the SPCA in “Puppy” is close to that presented in “Leaving for Kenosha”: conversation is minimal (“Puppy” 97) and it also seems to be linked to the overall impression Bobby gets from looking outside the car window:

[Sallie] got off the interstate at an exit I’d never used and that immediately brought us down onto a wide boulevard with old cars parked on the neutral ground, and paper trash cluttering the curbs down one long side of some brown-brick housing projects where black people were outside on their front stoops and wandering around the street in haphazard fashion. […] It was a part of town, in fact, where most white people would’ve been afraid to go. Yet it was not a bad section, and the Negroes who lived there no doubt looked on the world as something other than a hopeless place. (“Puppy” 97)

22If Bobby has control over his narrative, he obviously finds it difficult not to be in charge here: Sallie is driving and taking him to an unknown place. This first part of this account could well emanate from a child who is discovering the world, trying to encompass as much information as possible in the space of a sentence. The association of novelty and dirt, if a little striking, is soon accepted and Bobby eventually regains confidence, seeing this moment as evidence of his couple’s bravery. It is interesting to see that Bobby’s feelings quickly change as Sallie makes a wrong turn, he understands that New Orleans is not the right place for a woman like her: “She is not comfortable around black people when she is the only white—which is a residue of her privileged Alabama upbringing, where everything and everybody belonged to a proper place and needed to stay there” (“Puppy” 97). The shift to the present shows that Bobby has had a revelation that also concerns New Orleans at large: it does not illustrate the idea of ordered society that was upheld by southerners. What he notices about Sallie applies to him as well even though he is not ready to read the signs (see Koïs 106-7)—his later comment that “everything had begun to seem more manageable as we neared home” (“Puppy” 103) makes it obvious. Similarly, when they finally reach the SPCA, Bobby looks around, feeling sure that “the colored people across the street […] were sympathetic […] to what was going on and thought that it was better than cruelty” (“Puppy” 99). Yet the picture that forms in his mind as he sees what he believes to be “a device for disposing of animal remains […]. Probably some incinerating invention that didn’t have an outlet valve or a stack” (“Puppy” 100) looks quite cruel. Even if he does not want to face it, he unconsciously knows that the puppy may not find a family. He keeps reassuring himself by reading signs (“Placing Puppies Is Our First Priority”) that he misinterprets—instead of forgetting the puppy, he will be haunted by it, especially in relation to Paul.

23During the drive back as Bobby is concentrating on the changing face of the city, Sallie tells him about her fears: “‘I began thinking about that poor little puppy as an ill force that put everything in our life at a terrible risk. And we were in danger in some way. It scared me. I didn’t want that’” (“Puppy” 103-104). The reader might see a parallel between Sallie’s words and Bobby’s dream about Paul but the narrator does not—it is as if, at this stage at least, the puppy had taken the secret with him. In spite of the various trips that he made throughout the story, Bobby does not learn anything, “the city seems to impose its realities” (Bonner, “New Orleans” 206) and he readily declares that “New Orleans [is] a unique place” (“Puppy” 106). He confesses that he often thinks about the puppy but “in all the ways I tried to imagine it, he stayed [at the shelter]” (“Puppy” 106). This appears to be Bobby’s strategy to prevent the spreading of his dishonorable secret—after all a southerner’s honor is sacred—for he is clear on the fact that “Dreams always mean something obvious, and so I try as much as I can not to remember mine” (“Puppy” 107). When Bobby has another dream about Paul, the puppy is nowhere to be seen and cannot be blamed or silenced—the narrator has to find the answers himself and interestingly, it is the city that symbolically takes over through “the only unique American contribution to art” (Percy 10), jazz: “Outside, on our street, I could hear someone playing a trumpet, a very slow and soulful version of ‘Nearer Walk with Thee’” (“Puppy” 107). The puppy may have been put down but the city has revealed all its colors—there will always be hope in its (he)art—paving the way for some kind of reconciliation.

24With these two stories, Richard Ford elaborates on one of his ideas as regards New Orleans: it is “the place where the firm ground ceases and the unsound footing begins” (“A City Beyond the Reach of Empathy”). The song that Bobby hears towards the end of “Puppy” is about reaching the shore of a promised land, it is about surviving against all odds. Both Bobby and Walter need to reassess their lives before they can move on and reach the shore—if “Puppy” is lighter as far as its ideological dimension is concerned, it is, like “Leaving for Kenosha,” a story about working through life’s ups and downs. Ford has revealed that his next collection of stories tentatively entitled The Terrible Truth of War would revolve around “the consequences of disasters on human beings […]. The ways in which large scale disasters radiate out into our lives, into the subtle decisions and distinctions and choices that we make. […] I am also using Katrina, Hurricane Katrina, as if it were a kind of war, which in essence it is” (Transfuge interview). These comments prove Ford’s longing interest in the way people deal with ordeal and try to restore order.

25Judging from the outcome of the two stories analyzed here, it seems that Ford has perfected his art of third person narratives. Indeed, “Leaving for Kenosha” departs from the outcome of his previous writings in that form: “Those stories all [turned] out to be—and I don’t know if it’s just coincidental—harsher stories. The moral quotient to those stories tends to be of a more negative kind. They tend to be stories that indict their characters more than the first-person stories” (Interview with Rabalais and Levasseur 171). The story’s backcloth, the tragedy Katrina brought about, is probably the reason for such a positive ending but it appears to be one Ford has decided to exploit in the future as he recently expressed his desire to “write into the breach between what Henry James calls ‘bliss and bale’; in my own way, to connect ‘the things that help and the things that hurt’ and to find some kind of reconciling vocabulary for both” (Williams).

Top of page

Bibliography

Ford, Richard. “A Conversation with Richard Ford.” Interview with Huey Guagliardo. 1997. Conversations with Richard Ford. Ed. Huey Guagliardo. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2001. 147-64. Print.

___. “An Interview with Richard Ford.” Interview with Kevin Rabalais and Jennifer Levasseur. 1998. Conversations with Richard Ford. Ed. Huey Guagliardo. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2001. 165-84. Print.

___. “Leaving for Kenosha.” The New Yorker, March 3, 2008. Web. Accessed 06/01/2011.

___. A Piece of My Heart. 1976. London: Harvill Panther, 1996. Print.

___. “Puppy.” 2001. A Multitude of Sins. 2001. London: Vintage, 2002. 75-108. Print.

___. “Richard Ford – Transfuge Magazine.” 30 Sept. 2008. Transfuge Productions and Synapse Productions. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

___. Rock Springs. 1987. London: Harvill Panther, 1996. Print.

___. The Sportswriter. 1986. London: Harvill Panther, 1996. Print.

___. The Ultimate Good Luck. 1981. London: Harvill Panther, 1996. Print.

Bonner, Thomas, Jr. “Literary Center or Literary Place: The Ambiguity of New Orleans.” Journal of American Studies Association of Texas 25 (1994): 1-13. Print.

___. “New Orleans and Its Writers: Burdens of Place.” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 63.1-2 (2010): 195-209. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991. Print.

Kerjan, Liliane. “Voyage et fugue dans les nouvelles de Richard Ford.” Réa (Revue d'études anglophones), Le Voyage en Amérique (janvier 2001): 31-43. Print.

Koïs, Line. “Que reste-t-il de nos amours ? Les paradoxes d’une culture light dans A Multitude of Sins de Richard Ford.” Les Péchés innombrables de Richard Ford, et quelques autres. Eds. Gérald Préher and Brigitte Zaugg. Metz : Centre Écritures / Université Paul Verlaine — Metz, Collection “Littératures des mondes contemporains,” Série “Amériques” n°1, 2008. 97-118. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia U P, 1989. Print.

___. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia U P, 1991. Print.

Liénard-Yeterian, Marie. “A Multitude of Sins, ou l’Amérique selon Richard Ford.” Les Péchés innombrables de Richard Ford, et quelques autres. Eds, Gérald Préher and Brigitte Zaugg, Metz: Centre Écritures / Université Paul Verlaine — Metz, Collection “Littératures des mondes contemporains”, Série “Amériques” n°1, 2008. 151-64. Print.

Long, Alecia P. The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 2004. Print.

Percy, Walker. “New Orleans Mon Amour.” 1968. Signposts in a Strange Land. Ed. Patrick Samway. 1991. New York: Picador, 2000. 10-22. Print.

Vallas, Sophie. “Call Her Isola: Ed McBain’s Mythical City in the 87th Precinct Series.” E Pluribus Unum or E Pluribus Plura? Unity and Diversity in American Culture. Eds. Hans-Jürgen Grabbe, David Mauk and Ole Moen. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2011. 241-59. Print.

Williams, John. “Frank Bascombe Back in Short Form, for Now.” “Art Beats: The Culture at Large.” The New York Times, 6/05/2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2013.

Top of page

Notes

1 On the penultimate page, Rae asks Quinn: “‘What’re we going to do in New Orleans?’” and he replies “‘Go to the dogs’” (Ultimate Good Luck 200), a simple enough activity judging from the adventures that make up the book’s plot—Quinn went to Mexico to get his ex-girlfriend’s brother, who was accused of drug trafficking, out of jail. There, he is trapped in a violent spiral that he will try to control—eventually succeeding though his future is unclear at the outset. Still, there is ambiguity in Quinn’s answer since “going to the dogs” also means disintegrating or falling apart, namely “going to the devil.” In Rock Springs, Ford has one of his stories entitled “Going to the Dogs”—the narrator’s wife has left him and he hopes that going to Florida might “change his luck”(109)—a concern that Quinn also shares.

2 He did so in Canada, his latest novel published in 2012. The Lay of the Land (2006), the third volume of his Frank Bascombe trilogy includes a short disclaimer on the copyright page but this might emanate from the publisher.

3 Sallie tells Bobby how she feels “‘altering a small part changes everything’” (“Puppy” 79).

4 Ford has not commented on this short story so far but his choice was probably not of a random nature.

5 For instance, see Richard Ford, The Sportswriter (58).

6 For example, in The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1920, Alecia P. Long writes that “New Orleans city officials, acknowledging their belief that sins of the flesh were inevitable, looked Satan in the eye, cut a deal, and gave him his own address” (106).

7 The story sometimes reads like social realism, especially when the narrator comments on people’s activities: “Farther down the street, which stretched out toward the faraway lake and the hot white sky, a crew of young shirtless black men was gutting a house and loading the usable timbers and shingles onto a sagging pickup. But almost no one was living in any house now, or in the acres of streets in either direction, streets that looked like open fields. It was the Lower Nine. It was the land far below sea level, the submersible land that had always been poor and black but had been a place to live” (“Kenosha”). As the ternary rhythm at the end of the first sentence makes it clear, people are desperately trying to survive in this post-Apocalyptic landscape. The tone is critical though the narrator sees the hopelessness of the situation and the helplessness of those individuals (the use of “but” makes it blatant).

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Gérald PRÉHER, « Dusk can be a magical time in the French Quarter”: Richard Ford’s New Orleans before and after Katrina in “Puppy” and “Leaving for Kenosha” », E-rea [Online], 14.1 | 2016, Online since 15 December 2016, connection on 28 May 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/5311 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.5311

Top of page

About the author

Gérald PRÉHER

Institut Catholique de Lille
gerald.preher@gmail.com
Gérald Préher is an assistant professor at the Institut Catholique de Lille, France. He is a member of the CRILA research group (Université d’Angers, France) and the associate editor of the Journal of the Short Story in English. He has written several essays on Southern literature and has a forthcoming monograph on Elizabeth Spencer. He also co-edited books on southern short stories and on writers such as William Faulkner, Ernest Gaines and Richard Ford.

By this author

Top of page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • Revues.org