The romance of the bohemian life is seductive. It's the story Jack Kerouac told, it's the story Charles Bukowski told, and it's the story most pop and rock music tell. For those who don't figure into political calculations or see anyone like them on television, it's almost inevitable to write about life as low-grade tragedy or dark comedy, making it more dramatic in the process. Fortunately, journalist, musician and OffBeat columnist Michael Patrick Welch brings a reporter's sensibility to his first novel, The Donkey Show, providing a clear-eyed account of love in the time of Mardi Gras on a back waiter's salary.
Patrick, the protagonist, has recently moved from Florida to New Orleans, where his used bike is the way he gets around. It's the only transportation he can afford, but it's also his rejection of the middle-class life he left when he moved away from his parents in Florida. "FLA's evilly expansive geography keeps you trapped inside your motor vehicle, always, forever, or until an Officer asks you to step out," says Patrick, suggesting his ethical framework. He has a staunch sense of right and wrong, but Welch doesn't sugarcoat him; Patrick's not above cheap hustles for a free cup at the neighborhood coffee shop.
Welch's depiction of Patrick is interesting because the introduction hints that the story is largely autobiographical. Welch is writing himself as a character, and he walks that tightrope well. He doesn't revel in his flaws, but he doesn't clean up his personal habits or tidy up passages that might make him look bad. Anyone who has taught will wince at descriptions of the high school creative-writing classes Patrick has taught. His attempts as a young white man to reach his African-American students by proving how cool he is are painful, but Welch's touch is light, so these sections never become too depressing or uncomfortable to read.
Although the book is ostensibly a love story, race relations are a central part of the tale. His students are a constant source of frustration, but Welch never simply demonizes them or suggests they just don't want to work. In the case of Cedar, the leader of the drum line, Welch depicts someone for whom the attention received in high school may represent the best moments of his life. When Cedar criticizes an assignment saying, "I done this exact assignment before. Every white teacher in this school want us to write about how shitty Magnolia (the school) is," Welch suggests that part of his protagonist's antipathy is based in boredom, and part of it is rooted in the implicit judgment of his school made by the white faculty. "What if I don't think it's shitty?" The feeling readers will have by the end of the The Donkey Show is that, as much as white New Orleanians would like to think otherwise, the racial divide is profound, and rather than finding expression in open hostility, it has become more of a cold war with each side profoundly suspicious of the other. For Welch, race is clearly a theme -- he also performs music under the name "The White Bitch."
Welch declines to name the restaurant he worked at, along with the school and the coffee shop he lived near. Whatever the reason, it's one feature that periodically distracts from the narrative. In the occasions when they come up, readers will be tempted to stop and figure out which school is "Magnolia," or where on Esplanade Avenue "the Coffeeshop" is located. He also doesn't work too hard to hide them, so readers will know pretty quickly to which Canal Street restaurant he's referring, but in those moments The Donkey Show becomes a puzzle to solve instead of a narrative.
Readers may also wonder if Welch is a one-trick pony. The novel is governed more by its time period -- the month leading up to Mardi Gras -- than by a particular story. It ends up a love story, but by the time Patrick's love shows up, readers are more likely to think the book's about grinding out a living in New Orleans through a string of crummy jobs. That's only clear upon reflection, though. Welch has a knack for getting out of the way of his story, so the writing seems artless and natural. He has a particularly good ear for dialogue, so conversations are not only credible, but his transcriptions of slang are more accurate than many, making it possible to hear much of it.
As much as The Donkey Show does right, though, its biggest success is in what it doesn't do. Autobiography, particularly fictionalized autobiography, invites excesses that make the stories less real. By avoiding that trap, Welch captures the contradictory feelings that accompany living on the margins, feeling beautiful and superior in one sense and hopeless and deficient in others. His ability to convey that makes The Donkey Show, ultimately, feel true.
- Whether writing under his real number or performing music as The White Bitch, Michael Patrick Welch understands life on the edge.