Jewish fugitive from the Gangs of New Orleans fights the War between the States.
Elias Abrams, the illegitimate son of wealthy sugar planter I.J. Lieber, whom he meets exactly once—or maybe, fatefully, twice—is a denizen of the mean streets of New Orleans. He and his mother eke out a living growing and selling vegetables. In and out of orphanages after his mother dies of yellow fever, Abrams becomes the henchman of Silas Wolfe, the leader of one of the city’s fiercest gangs, the Cypress Stump Boys. Now Abrams, a Confederate soldier, slogs through mostly losing battles with his unlikely comrade-in arms, Mark-Twain–waggish classics professor Carlson. When his company commander asks Abrams to correspond with a respectable young lady of his faith whose rabbi has urged her to write to a soldier, Carlson offers editing help to his semi-literate friend. Soon a rose/talc-scented reply arrives from Nora Bloom, and Abrams is enchanted. But his dark past intrudes. Two thugs, Cobb and Petitgout, test his poker prowess, and Abrams fears they are agents of Wolfe, now his enemy. Challenging the duo, he nearly kills them. He and Carlson join a cavalry expedition to Arkansas, where Abrams is wounded in a skirmish with Union horsemen. Delirious, he reveals to Carlson that he and Wolfe might have murdered Lieber. Sent back to New Orleans to recuperate, he meets Nora. Despite the social gulf between them, she is intrigued. But Abrams can’t resist trying to settle his old score with Wolfe, who threatens reprisals against Nora if Abrams doesn’t dispatch Petitgout. Sexual encounters and carnage are described in lurid detail, and, throughout, the language is as lush and sometimes as tepid and leaden as a humid bayou day. The illusion that Abrams labors under for half the novel is revealed in a final cruel twist, but since Abrams never transcends his hardscrabble persona, readers won’t sympathize.
Elias Abrams remains a cipher, easily upstaged by the real star here: New Orleans in all its fetid, polyglot glory.