LIVES OF THE SAINTS by Nancy Lemann

LIVES OF THE SAINTS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This fine, if slight, first novel is set in New Orleans, ""a fateful green garden,"" with streets named Indulgence and Religion and Desire, where the narrator's lover, Claude Collier, the wastrel son of a brilliant lawyer, goes to night court and the drunk tank in a district called Araby. The narrator, Louise Brown, has just returned from college in Boston, and goes to a wedding where ""Everyone was too drunk. Everyone was unglued."" In party scenes worthy of Evelyn Waugh, we observe young upper-class debauchees reluctant to let go of childhood, their ""dry"" parents, and an aged lady who talks of nothing but clothes and hats: ""But her frivolity was heroic. She did it on purpose."" And we learn that the best lovemaking happens in the bamboo grove. We go to the races with Claude and Louise, and to the funeral of his baby brother, Saint. The loss unhinges Claude's father, and Claude himself, who goes north; Louise, distracted, goes to Carnival and loses her job; Claude comes home, only to get into a racetrack betting scandal, and the wedding party is reunited, four years later, at the wild birthday party of the bride. The book's themes are love and loss, particularly (though the time is 1980) the defeat of the South, which has made Claude and his father what some would call weak, others gentle. ""Among the Yankees I have known, I only met one who had the grace to apologize to me about the War,"" says Louise. Yet her voice is comic in its deadpan urgency, delivered in short, terse sentences that now and then break open in a lyric mode. While this is not a terribly ambitious novel, it is brilliant at what it does achieve: a sociological and very funny portrait of a people and place that haven't changed, much, since the Civil War. Throughout the book black and white societies pass close to one another, but never join.

Pub Date: June 10th, 1985
Publisher: Knopf