Critical Mass

Valerie Martin: An End-of-Year Lagniappe


Earlier this month, novelist Valerie Martin took part in an NBCC sponsored reading by and for New Orleans writers (details here). She ended her section of the evening by reading the last page of her 1987 novel “A Recent Martyr,“a bittersweet reminder of the reasons native-born and visitors alike yearn for the city of New Orleans. Here it is:

It’s an odd sensation to recognize in oneself the need to be in a particular physical environment, when one longs for the home ground no matter how terrible the memories it holds, no matter how great the efforts made to leave it behind. So I have left this city again and again and thought myself lucky to escape its allure, for it’s the attraction of decay, of vicious, florid, natural cycles that roll over the senses with their lushness. Where else could I find these hateful, humid, murderously hot afternoons, when I know that the past was a series of great mistakes, the greatest being the inability to live anywhere but in this swamp? I can’t do without those little surges of joy at the sight of a chameleon, of a line of dark clouds moving in beneath the burning blue of the sky. I am comforted by the threatening encumbrance of moss on trees, the thick, sticky plantain trees that can grow from their chopped roots twenty feet in three months, the green scum that spreads over the lagoons and bayous, the colorful conversation of the lazy, suspicious, pleasure-loving populace. I don’t think I will leave the city again.

The plague continues, neither in nor out of control, but we have been promised a vaccine that will solve all our problems. We go on without it, and life is not intolerable. Our city is an island, physically and psychologically; we are tied to the rest of the country only by our own endeavor. The river from which we drink drains a continent; it has to be purified for days before we can stomach it. We smile to ourselves when people from more fashionable centers find us provincial, for if we are free of one thing, it’s fashion. The future holds a simple promise. We are well below sea level, and inundation is inevitable. We are content, for now, to have our heads above the water.—Valerie Martin