Reviews During Wartime

Happy new year!

I’m getting over the flu, which I contracted while researching the next Jay Desmarteaux novel, wandering around Iberia and Vermilion Parishes in Louisiana. I visited the grave of bluesman Slim Harpo and the Louisiana Capitol Building, where Huey Long was assassinated. You can read about it at Do Some Damage, where I call it Research Without a Cause.

Which answers the question to the first review of Life During Wartime, my new story collection, up at Out of the Gutter: “Amazingly, the dialogue, settings, and situations all ring true. Either Pluck has done some serious research or he’s lived a life on the move!”
I love to travel, and I love writing stories that use what I see and learn from new places and people. If you haven’t pre-ordered Life During Wartime, Down & Out Books has a 60% discount on the ebooks. I will be signing the book at Mysterious Bookshop and Watchung Booksellers in February, and I will put the updates on my Events page. If you can’t get one in person, Down & Out Books has all the links to your favorite suppliers.

Life During Wartime Paperback

Some of my research had a cause, like dropping into Vermilionville, a living Acadian village rather like Colonial Williamsburg, stopping by to see the Evangeline Tree in St. Martinsville, a memorial to Longfellow’s poem of the same name, based on people who lived in the area.  One of them is name checked in James Lee Burke’s latest novel Robicheaux, which I reviewed for Criminal Element. I did stop to eat at Victor’s Cafeteria where Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcell grab breakfast in New Iberia. You read about my adventures in Cajun Country at SleuthSayers, and you can also see my pictures on Instagram, on Facebook, or Twitter.

Another story that drew from my travels is “Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind,” in Alive in Shape and Color. I’ve received a lot of emails about this one, which Liz French of Library Journal called “stunning,” and the reviewer at the New York Times found disturbing enough to call me out by name. Robert Lopresti loved it but wasn’t sure if it was “crime”, but I think murders at an archaeological dig in Germany are criminal enough.  So, if you haven’t jumped on Alive in Shape and Color, you don’t want to miss it. Like its Edward Hopper-themed forebear, it’s making a splash.

Life During Wartime events! Don’t say you weren’t warned…

Thursday, February 8th at 7:00 PM: The official launch of my story collection Life During Wartime at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair! Snacks and a brief reading and a Q&A.

Wednesday, February 21st at 6:30 PM: Life During Wartime  and Slaughterhouse Blues signing event with Nick Kolakowski at The Mysterious Bookshop. Join me and Nick for a night of noir. One week after Valentine’s Day, your heart will have recovered.

Thursday, March 8th at 6:00 PM: A Montclair Authors Meet & Greet at Sotheby’s, 32 Valley Rd, Montclair, NJ. Come join us for wine and cheese and rub suede elbow patches with local Montclair authors! I’ll be in the corner eating all the Gruyere.

Feeding Kate and Gator Bait!

I dropped by Sabrina Ogden’s blog to talk about my inspiration for Kamikaze Death Burgers at the Ghost Town Cafe, my story for the charity collection FEEDING KATE. All funds from the anthology were meant to pay for jaw surgery for our dear friend Sabrina, complications of Lupus (see, House? Sometimes it IS Lupus, ya mook). The indiegogo campaign was a success, and now the book is available on Amazon, with the proceeds going to benefit The Lupus Foundation. So please, drop by her blog for some chat of burgers, samurai, and my wild Jay Desmarteaux yarn, inspired by Mad Max and my last trip through the Utah desert.

And as usual, a bunch of things I’ve written are all available at once. So I also ask that if you want to hear about some backwoods Cajun revenge, you check out my review of ‘GATOR BAIT for Criminal Element’s Crimes Against Film series. If a Playboy playmate in a motorboat with a twelve gauge gunning for revenge sounds up your alley, laissez les bon temps roulez! (Let the good times roll, for y’all who ain’t from the bayou, like me and John Fogerty… who also aren’t).

gator-bait-poster

White Lightning … Gator McClusky for President?

Now I am not sure of where Gator stands on most of the issues. I think he’s a one issue voter. With that issue being “kill the sumbitch sheriff who murdered my brother.”

WHITE LIGHTNING is the story of a bootlegger named Gator McClusky doing time in prison for running booze. They won’t let him go to his brother’s funeral, but the Feds have an idea he was murdered by a crooked sheriff, played by Ned Beatty. So they let Gator out and give him a supercharged beast of a Ford LTD, a super sleeper that no one in the county can catch. His mission? Run booze! Run it better than the Sheriff, so they can catch him at it.

Actually the mission isn’t all that clear once Gator is out of prison. He visits friends and family, he taunts the Sheriff by racing around town, he makes a few moonshine runs. He strong-arms a mechanic into sabotaging a runner’s car so he can take over, he sleeps with his buddy’s girlfriend, he shoots up a few crooked lawmen and races all over creation. This was before Reynolds got huge and let his ego take over, and he plays a backwoods boy quite well. He’s a little rough around the edges, but he can charm the bloomers off a sweet county clerk. I had never seen this minor classic, but I remember watching Gator, the sequel, on Videodisc back in the day. Yep, my father had one of those. I bought an HD-DVD player, so choosing the losing medium must be in our blood.

White Lightning was a lot of fun. It’s not quite up there with VANISHING POINT and BULLITT for car movies, but Hal Needham did the stunts, and it makes for a nostalgic and enjoyable night’s viewing. I drank an Abita and remembered a simpler time, when a fast car, a quick wit and a whole lot of guts was all you needed to wipe the county clean of evil. Movies like this, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Mad Max certainly inspired me to write  Jay Desmarteaux.

White Lightning

Southern Discomfort

I saw Southern Comfort on HBO in the early ’80s long before I knew who Walter Hill was; I liked The Warriors and Streets of Fire and 48 Hrs. (full review) but I hadn’t connected them as the work of one director yet. I remembered it as a cheap Deliverance knockoff, so I wanted to refresh my memory.
The story is a simple one. A squad of Louisiana National Guard are training in the bayou. They aren’t the best and brightest; their Sergeant is straight laced, but the boys have some whores lined up for fun after maneuvers, and they want to get done quick. Among them is a loaner from Texas named Hardin, played by Powers Boothe; Fred Ward as a crude loudmouth named Reece, Keith Carradine as a sarcastic self-deprecating smartass named Spencer, and T.K. “Nauls from The Thing” Carter. That gives us some solid character acting on board and a beloved cult director, so let’s see how much comfort it gives us for the next two hours.
During training, the lazy fellows are in Cajun country, and have no respect for the swamp folks; Reece calls them coon-asses. He cuts their nets as they wade through the bayou, completely unmindful of the snakes, gators, gar and other critters. They’re city boys, and some comparison to the culture clash between Americans and Vietnamese. The Cajuns speak their French patois, live off the land, and just want to be left alone. The Guard boys have blanks for training, and the guy with the M60 likes pranking people with it. When they come upon some pirogues (canoes) and decide to take borrow them as a shortcut, he fires at their rightful owners when they’re caught. Problem is, the hunters in the swamp have guns with real ammo, and they fire back.
The soldiers are green and panic, and end up lost in the bayou, with a few bullets each, surrounded by inhospitable territory and people who live in it, who they’ve made their enemies. Sound familiar? Not long after they regroup and go a little wild, they capture a Cajun trapper played by Brion James. He speaks only French, and his lines are especially funny if you understand a little. He’s stoic and laconic, and when they come upon a stringer of 8 dead rabbits- coincidentally the same number of soldiers- they think it’s a warning and are creeped out. They demand an answer from him, and he just says, “lapin!” Sonny “Billy from Predator” Landham plays another of the hunters, but doesn’t get any lines.
The rest plays out mostly as expected- some men cling to reason and military procedure, others want revenge and grasp for power in the confusion. When they realize they are being hunted, some lose it, and they never come to terms with how dangerous the land alone is, even when it is used against them. We do get to see a more pleasant face of backwoods Cajun life as two of the men come upon a small town and join in a crawfish boil, pig roast and celebration. Unfortunately the story structure is a bit muddled and the ending comes 20 minutes too late. It spends a little too much time whittling down the Guards with clever traps like a slasher film, when it should have stuck to the war film formula. It’s still an enjoyable film, in Walter Hill’s best pastiche of a Sam Fuller B-movie.
The very end slows as the rescue arrives, but comparing National Guardsmen taking it easy at home in ’73 to soldiers in Vietnam running for the medevac chopper is a bit much. I would have loved the festival scene to continue its creepy vibe, where they are unsure if the ropes being strung up are for slaughtering pigs for the feast, or for hanging interloping soldiers. I would have liked them to panic and turn on their hosts, but instead it continues the slasher vibe. Not a great movie, but a good one, and the bayou has never been bleaker. It was filmed on location and Hill’s crew suffered in the wet and cold. Ry Cooder’s excellent soundtrack, with some traditional Cajun music by Dewey Balfa, helps set the film’s excellent tone, which makes the foggy swamp one of the creepiest settings in a long time. Southern Comfort may not be one of Hill’s best, but it’s definitely an interesting take on the Vietnam metaphor.

Atchafalaya Aquatic Gastronomy Tour

As I’ve written before, Louisiana is as much a cuisine and way of life as a geographical place. Famous for the Acadian flavor that French trappers exiled from Canada brought to the area, the influence of Old South, Spanish settlers, backwoods ingenuity, Creole and Choctaw all make their presence known in the cuisine. I first found Louisiana through the writings of James Lee Burke, a crime fiction author of great talent- pick up Black Cherry Blues, or the more recent Crusader’s Cross for a taste- and droved down to New Orleans with a friend of mine. With how seedy a city it was then and how he portrayed it, it’s a wonder I went, and made it back. I remember a handmade sign in the French Quarter decrying the murder and corruption. But I also remember the muffaletta at the Central Grocery, the shrimp etoufee, the boiled crawfish and the pecan pie.
I learned the hard way, the proper way to pronounce pecan. A pee-can is something you piss in, see. But for all James Lee Burke’s love of the Atchafalaya Basin and its people, I never made it there until my most recent trip with Firecracker, to visit her family in Baton Rouge. We went on a swamp tour of the Atchafalaya, sampled gator and catfish caught in it, stopped by the birthplace of turducken, and more. We did so much in six days that I have to write about this in several posts. The overlooked plainer sister of New Orleans, the capital city of Baton Rouge, deserves its own article; there’s quite a bit to do, and quite a lot of good things to eat in that fine city. I’ll save that for next time. This one’s all about the fun we had around the Atchafalaya Basin.
Our first trip was to McGee’s Landing in Henderson. Not only do they offer swamp boat tours, but they have a nice restaurant and gift shop planted right on the water, serving up the denizens of . We snagged a sampler platter and some po’ boys that were delicately battered and fried to perfection; not greasy at all. And let me tell you, I’d had gator before, but never this good. The white tail meat is like the most tender chicken you’ve ever had texture-wise, and the flavor is like mild white fish. Speaking of which, you’ve never had catfish until you’ve had it down South. And Cracker Barrel don’t count. Wow, was this good. About the only delicate fish I’d compare to it in flavor and quality is Walleye at the Tavern on Grand in St. Paul.
Also in the platter were shrimp and crawfish, which was thankfully in season. These little mudbugs make towers of mud along the waterways they inhabit. We found one in the ditch behind Firecracker’s family house. Of course they serve Abita beer at McGee’s, and since it was after noon somewhere we cooled off with a couple Ambers. The tour itself was $20 and in a large shaded flat bottom boat, led by a Cajun tour guide whose name I can’t pronounce. He was quite entertaining- Acadian folks seem to have the same gift of gab the Irish are famed for, but in their own way. With the same gallows-humor, though.
We cruised around a bit admiring cormorants, herons and pelicans, the cypress trees and Spanish moss- which was harvested for furniture stuffing back in the days- and got history lessons on everything from how the Basin was flooded, to Henry Ford started Kingsford charcoal with the remains of the wood he shipped from the basin to build Model T’s with. The most memorable part of the tour was when we squeezed up a canal to a quiet spot where the gators were used to being fed. After calling them by banging a wrench on the side of the boat, he threw chunks of pork fat to “Bruce,” an 8 foot alligator, and a nameless 3 footer who came to get the scraps. Our guide said that a 14 foot bull gator frequented the area, but it was too hot to get a lot of action that day.
The Atchafalaya is the largest swamp in the U.S., and while we have the Great Swamp and the Meadowlands among others here in Jersey, we don’t have alligators. The mob would love to have gators around to gobble up evidence, though. The swamp was eerily beautiful and disturbed only by the cut of I-10 above it. There were some houses out on stilts, reachable only by boat, the ultimate in solitude. Next time I visit I vow to do some fishing- big catfish, bass, and prehistoric alligator gar would all be good fun to catch. And eat.
On the way back we stopped at Hebert’s Specialty Meats, which I’d seen on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. They make the turduckens we’ve all heard about, and while I didn’t have room for a whole turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken, I got some turducken sausage and some boudin. They only serve lunch, and we would have missed it thanks to construction traffic on I-10, so we ate at McGee’s- and I don’t regret it one bit. Though next time I want to get a turducken plate and some boudin balls!