New Orleans writer and frequent Gambit Weekly contributor Jason Berry has written his first novel after a half-dozen non-fiction works. In Last of the Red Hot Poppas (Chin Music Press), which debuts this week, Berry draws upon two decades of covering Louisiana's political and religious charlatans as well as the oil industry's economic and political hegemony in the Bayou State.
Set in the early 1990s, Poppas tells the story of Gov. Rex LaSalle, a philandering but popular Cajun rogue (sound familiar?) who dominates the state's political landscape but somehow manages to get himself poisoned in the guest bedroom of the Governor's Mansion -- all by page 3.
The rest of the story unfolds as a bayou-style morality tale in which idealistic assistant state Attorney General Henry Hubbell is called upon by the steely First Lady to help her maintain the family's dignity in the wake of Rex's ignominious demise -- even though some members of the family don't have much dignity to begin with -- while leading legislators plot to circumvent the line of succession around the drunkard lieutenant governor. And that's just the start, as oilfield waste pits, zydeco musicians, black preachers, Pentecostal revivals and well-kept paramours provide a saucy but utterly believable backdrop for this romp of a tale. Berry even mentions a few real names -- Jerry Lee Lewis and Sheriff Harry Lee among them -- for good measure.
Berry deftly serves up a gaggle of memorable political characters, each of whom could walk right off the pages of his book and into the marbled corridors of the Louisiana Capitol -- which makes Poppas all the more enjoyable.
Berry and his publisher agreed to let Gambit Weekly publish excerpts of the book. Below is the first chapter, followed by two flashbacks that take readers to the day before Rex's murder -- the morning of a key legislative vote on an environmental cleanup bill aimed at helping the poor black community of Blue Line, and later that night when the Rev. Christian Fraux, a black preacher, undertaker and long-time supporter of Rex in Blue Line, hunts down the governor at a fish fry in New Roads to lock up his support for the environmental bill.
Berry also agreed to an interview in which he offers more insights into Rex LaSalle, Louisiana and Last of the Red Hot Poppas.
IN THE TOP FLOOR BEDROOM, THE FIRST Lady dreamed of making love with Rex beneath the arms of a muscular oak. Her body, cupped by the earth, moistens in feathery rain, the sky explodes with a quickening rhythm of water on leaves, and then they fall, sinking into hot muck, lost in a magic and sinful state at the bottom of America.
At fifty-four, the First Lady wore the same size six as her wedding gown. Her dark-haired beauty was a solvent to the advance of time. A stream of sun rays parted her eyelids. She bolted up from the pillow and wrapped herself in her red silk robe, a gift from Exxon's wife.
Waking Rex was odd duty. She so rarely did it. However long he may have lingered in some assignation hatched after the hustings, he always made it back, smelling clean, for several hours of sleep, his room or hers, wherever prudence deem he camp. She daubed her face with cold water and stepped into the hallway, muttering a Hail Mary for patience.
Each day he wasn't on the road, Rex was head of the mansion he loved like a human body. His ratings had risen steadily across the years while she installed art works from distant places, purchased with her own money, the more exotic pieces a secret between them. The marble for the solarium came from quarries south of Florence, a goodwill gesture to the state from some now-interred Mediterranean administration grateful for medical supplies, food-stuff and Italo-Louisiana volunteers, dispatched by Rex on oil company airplanes to a village rubbled by an earthquake west of Pisa. That is when Governor LaSalle had gone on TV. He spoke from the Capitol terrace, overlooking the statue of Huey Long, and held up His Holiness's letter: "A gift of stone, blessed by the throne in Rome, affirms the values of our state -- an international state!"
He was a bawdy man, the most outrageous she had ever known. Down the years he had stretched every tissue of their original love; she was tired of taking him back with stale apologies, of trying to restitch the bond. Part of him, she believed, was driven by a wild erotic charge beyond the circuitry of most men, incapable of sexual honesty, reduced to a tearful display, down on a knee like some black-face vaudevillian pleading you're the only one I ever loved, baby, nothin', nobody else counts, I mean nobody! Never had she felt more isolated. His levers of influence functioned more fluidly than those of her daddy, Mayor of Avoyelles for thirty-seven years and still getting votes ten summers after his funeral. Rex wielded power as naturally as some men glide across a ballroom floor. He took three showers a day and was the most spectacular politician in these latitudes since television.
Amelia LaSalle (nee Broussard), Queen of the 1959 Sugar Festival, Miss Louisiana runner-up, 1960, had her own issues. Battle scarred in matrimony, she had shifted of necessity to an aesthetic quest, a search for clarity in the paintings, photographs and works of anonymous artists whose carvings from black Africa lined her space in the interior of a mansion that drew more people on guided tours than any other in the fifty capitals.
She had serious money banked in her own name and tolerated his galloping libido for reasons she didn't brood upon with chemical company presidents due at ten and at a quarter past nine the Governor hadn't stirred.
She crossed the hallway and rapped the mahogany door, a gift from Hondurans who flew in every winter, generals and politicians toting weapons into marshes behind camps loaned by the petrochemical companies, feral men yet sociable in that seamless Latin way, blasting deer, rabbits, nutria, raccoon, anything in a shotgun's sight, trailing bloody boot prints back to the lodges with women who disappeared when TV lights came on for our good neighbors to the South. Partners in free enterprise type guvment.
Turning the knob, she advanced into the smaller room and pulled back the curtains, shedding a diaphanous glow on her husband of more than three decades. She shook the Governor's foot. "Rex, honey." He's fifty-five. Running around like a yard dog. Lord, Jesus: help me salvage him ...
"Come on, dear. Time to get up."
She jostled his shoulder: an arm flopped, hand on the floor. His eyes were wide open.
They still talk of how her screams cascaded down the banisters, streaking over portraits of long entombed governors, Mayan figurines and a Harlem painting by Jacob Lawrence, walls tremulous with echoes of her voice hitting the downstairs reception hall, startling a florist who dropped chrysanthemums, scattering yellow blossoms on the floor.
Mitchell Mudd, the Governor's confidential assistant, had just sat down in the foyer of the boss's office where Colonel Lawson Bellamy, the chief of state police, had come to lobby for a better pension package. Mudd was lean with dark hair; Bellamy muscular with a crew-cut the color of wheat. Popping out like springs, they raced up the stairwell in the wake of her screams, bounding into the room where the First Lady had collapsed over the body, sobbing.
Mudd cupped his fingers on her shoulders. "Miss Amelia, let me see."
"Jesus God, Mitchell: he won't wake up!"
Mudd cradled her shoulders as she pulled up from the bed. She covered her mouth. Colonel Bellamy held the Governor's wrist, studied his watch, put an ear on Rex LaSalle's chest. Bellamy pulled out his cell phone. The First Lady shut herself in the bathroom, faucet running to quiet her sobs, washing her hands in reaction to the feel of his dead skin. When Mudd cried "you all right in there?" she emerged from hot vapors, scowling at the men.
Bellamy barked into the phone: "We got a critical emergency with Governor LaSalle. I need a cardiac unit immediately!"
Out in the world, cirrus clouds hung like gauze in an azure sky. Autumn was the season Rex loved best: festivals at harvest time, football nights. For fourteen days the heat had been so brutal that people could not work outside in the middle hours. Economists were being interviewed about lost labor time.
Amelia LaSalle left for the master suite. "I need to change."
"Absolutely," asserted Mitchell Mudd. "I'm keepin' track."
The bedroom swallowed her in the silence of a crypt.
She was alone: two daughters on their own, her mother living sixty miles away, her charming half-mad rogue of a spouse gone forever. She pictured Rex's hands reaching up through misty clouds, only to be pulled down by hairy Satanic paws. Dead: why? She murmured a prayer for the soul freed from the body down the hall where Colonel Bellamy had his eyes trained on the medical men like amoebae under a microscope.
"Well, was it his heart?" the Colonel demanded.
The young doctor and his younger paramedic perspired in green smocks. "I can't document cause of death," said the physician. "But his lips are blue, his fingernails are blue, and he has an acrid smell. I'd be speculating to say he's poisoned, Colonel."
An exposed sheet revealed the Governor's right leg. Lipstick smears ran down his knee and thigh. The sheet was folded over his equator.
"You saying he didn't die of natural causes?" muttered Colonel Bellamy.
"I'm saying it''s not my job to produce forensic data."
"Looks like somebody visited," stewed Bellamy.
Mitchell Mudd's black eyes glared at the Colonel. With other men present, every word was adhesive.
"We don't know enough," grunted Bellamy.
"Gentlemen," put in the emergency physician, "you need to call the Coroner. And since the Governor was Roman Catholic, you should call a priest."
"What's your opinion?" Bellamy fired back.
"His vital functions ceased operating several hours ago."
"He was vital at some point," said Bellamy, eyeing the lipwork on the dead man's leg.
"Goddamn," growled Mitchell Mudd. "Can't y'all clean him?"
"The Coroner should deal with the corpse in its present state," said the doctor. "I grew up here and don't need an order to keep my mouth shut."
"Cause if it opens, you're in a sea of burning shit!" snapped Mitchell Mudd. He threw a cold glance at the paramedic, who said: "It's all private!"
"That's right," said Mudd. "What a man and his wife do alone is sacred. Reporters have no morals."
The four men stared at the body.
"Y'all take the servants' elevator," ordered Bellamy. "Stay in the kitchen till the Coroner comes. Nobody leaves till we got control of the physical plant."
"We're on call," stated the doctor.
"We'll get you people out," reported Bellamy. "Won't be long."
The medical emergency team left.
"Media's gonna crawl up our ass," said Mudd.
Bellamy faced him. "What's your story, Mitchell?"
Mudd ran his fingers through dank hair. "He was fine on the way back from New Roads last night. I didn't see him sneak any female up here. And his wife sleepin' down the hall? Nanh-unh."
"My night guard would have a record of any visitor," said Bellamy. "Rex didn't smoke, didn't drink, and he waddn't overweight." Bellamy sniffed a glass on the night stand. "Scotch! Any idea how this got here?"
Mudd shrugged. He was gazing glumly at the body. Bellamy went to the window. Wooden posts of a side gallery, lined with palm fronds, supported a private balcony facing the vast back lawn and ridge of trees along Capitol Road. "I'm six-foot one and a hundred-ninety pounds," reported the Colonel, "but even I could get out through this window. We need fingerprints on the sill, floor photos, big time forensics."
"Not the FBI," said Mudd, a lump moving north in his throat.
"Governor hated the FBI! Sez they're worse than the mob. Goddamn, I loved Rex." Mudd choked. "He gave me the best job of my life. This is assassination!"
"Unless a woman did it."
"A woman kill him for what?" squealed Mudd.
"All the ones he had, possibilities multiply."
The body loomed as a personal disaster to Bellamy: a Governor dies on your watch. "Mitch, I got to call the Federals."
"Nobody needs to know about this man's state," simmered Mudd. "You call the Feds, him like that, those people feed the media and Rex is dirty forever. That ain't fair. We don't know what happened. We need a probe we can control."
Bellamy had a Purple Heart from Korea. Although he considered Rex LaSalle a political genius, he had been stunned by his sex life. Since Clinton had gone to Washington, Bellamy had been mesmerized by stories of Arkansas troopers leaking dirt on the big man. At dawn Bellamy had been strategizing how to boost his pension when he met with the Governor. Now the need to cut distance from an ugly death moved to the foreground of his thoughts.
"City homicide has trouble solving passion crimes, Mitchell. This means fiber samples, a zillion tight shots, plus meshing gears with the Coroner."
Mudd's chin was speckled red from shaving cuts. "The Feds are cannibals, Bellamy. They eat anything they find. Humans, rugs, cars. They eat it raw."
Bellamy rubbed his brow. "I'll call Attorney General Abadie. He was the Governor's ally. Oscar's smart. Plus he's got good lab connections."
Mudd wiped his eyes.
Bellamy stabbed his cell phone. "Good mawnin'. This is Colonel Lawson Bellamy of State Police. I need to talk with General Abadie. Mm. He's where? Tobago. Which is -- Trinidad, I see. So, who's minding the store? Benton's in court upstate. My my. Who's the General's next best? No I haven't. He did? And Oscar knew his daddy. Well, all right. Yes, ma'am, I will." Bellamy cupped the receiver. "Oscar got a lawyer went to Harvard. Someone Hubbell."
Mudd nodded vacantly.
"In the legislature," said Bellamy into the phone. "Thank you."
Bellamy punched the buttons once again. "Hullo, this Colonel Bellamy of State Police. Please, ma'am: give me the Sergeant-at-Arms immediately."
Mitchell Mudd sat slumped in a chair.
"Mike boy," said the Colonel into his cell phone. "You know Henry Hubbell?" Bellamy's eyebrows went up. "Good. Get him for me lickety-split. I am holding and it is critical. Thank you, sir."
Mitchell Mudd cradled his head in his hands. He was wheezing. Poor bastard, thought Bellamy: his life just got cut down the middle.
It was 10:02 A.M.
ON THE DAY OF THE ASSASSINATION, Christian Fraux had arisen at dawn and put on his best silk suit. With damp hair combed like a silver yarmulke, Fraux had prospered in the business of burials. Checking his oil stick at the Avoyelles station, he saw Mayor Bobby Broussard's yellow Cadillac pull astride the pump, a 1979 with garish bumpers driven by his widow who endowed the behemoth vehicle with a strange kind of grace. "G'morning, Miss Della. How are you?"
"Slightly vexed, Rev'nd Fraux." She was a slender lady with a porcelain face and ruffled gray hair. "Not a tin of cat food in the house."
A Cajun in a Saints T-shirt emerged to feed her tank with gasoline.
"A brochure came in the mail," she stated. "It wanted money."
"Some charity?" Fraux replied.
"There is nothing charitable about the Republican Party."
In violent years Fraux led people, hungry for justice, over horizons their forebears barely imagined. "Everything changes" -- began the previous Sunday's sermon by a distinguished preacher from Atlanta, come for the thirtieth anniversary of bloody marches at the Capitol -- "and nothing is changed." Yes-Lawd, murmured the congregates, fans fluttering in hand, while Fraux, whose mortuary duties left little time for reading much less preaching of the Lord's letter, brooded over red-green sludge stinking up ditches behind the trailer park.
Avoyelles had been a village between sugar plantations in 1863 when his great-grandfather, a free man of color, purchased fifty-seven acres on the outskirts. The town grew and the annexed area came to be called Blue Line. Fraux's father gave him the original deed. Framed above his desk, its look of yellowed parchment conveyed the authority of time. Ex-slaves, Indians and latterly Cambodians had settled into pockets sold down the ancestral line. Fraux Mortuary covered a knoll that stood five blocks from St. Joseph Square.
And so on a morning of record autumn heat, with poisoned sewers flooding his thought field and no inkling that the Governor was dead in bed, Fraux climbed the Capitol's forty-eight steps (one for each state, save belated Alaska and Hawaii) and entered the rotunda, waiting in the whoosh of cool air for his son, Robert Lincoln, a sophomore at LSU. Christian Fraux stared at Huey Long in bronze defiance on the lawn below and wondered how much he stole.
THE EVENING BEFORE REX'S DEATH, Robert Lincoln had fallen into a doze as his daddy steered the hearse into New Roads. Reverend Christian Fraux had years of loyalty to Rex LaSalle: delivering Blue Line's vote, covering the backwater wards with kids nailing signs on trees, voter cars on election day. Jaded though he was about politics, Fraux knew that if Rex gave his word on something, you got it. In the parking lot, father and son donned their coats and strode into the A-frame building with a cypress roof peaked above a big fan blowing air into the hall. White people sat at newspaper-covered cafeteria tables with mounds of shrimp, saggy cardboard boxes put out a tangy aroma as older folk danced to a Dewey Balfa waltz on the jukebox. Governor LaSalle moved down the row of tables, shaking hands, kissing women, slapping men on the back. Behind the Governor trailed an aide with oily hair and a five o'clock shadow.
A white state trooper said: "Y'all lookin' for someone?"
"Reverend Fraux from Avoyelles. Here to see the Governor."
"He's talkin' to some folks now. Is it critical?"
"We have driven from the legislature."
The trooper motioned toward the crowd. "He'll be done in a few minutes. Y'all want some food, some beer?"
"No thank you." Fraux had nothing to prove to these people. Sleeves curled at his elbows, tie loose, patting sweat with a small towel, Rex worked the rows, pressing the flesh. His aide made eye contact with Fraux, and whispered to the Governor. Rex looked up, and waved. Fraux waved back.
Finally, the Governor blew kisses to late applause and stepped into the night heat with the state trooper and his aide called Mitchell Mudd.
"Who's the movie star, Chris?" asked Rex, pumping Fraux's hand.
"My son, Robert Lincoln."
"Pleasure to meet you, Governor."
The Governor engulfed the young man's hands and looked him in the eye: "My pleasure to know you."
"Our limousine is air-conditioned," said Christian Fraux.
"Lead me to the banks, Reverend."
The student followed them across the gravel lot. "Robert," said Fraux, "take the driver's seat so Governor LaSalle and I will have room in the back."
Engaging the motor, Robert Lincoln's first impression of the ruler was the smell of crawfish. He lay his right elbow over the front seat as the two men huddled in the back. "Whew," said Rex, reclining in the cool cushions, "those coonasses eat like they just discovered food. No bodies in here, huh Chris?"
Robert Lincoln laughed.
"Just ours," said Fraux. "Miss Della reports that she found Mayor Bobby's champagne coil."
"My daddy-in-law was an expert." Rex's smile drew out the lines around his eyes. "So. What brings y'all to nether regions on a Thursday night?"
Robert Lincoln leaned against the door, idling the engine with a foot on the floorboard. The Governor looked at his watch.
"It stinks," said Christian Fraux.
"Say again, Chris?"
The boy's calves tightened. After all the nasty jokes about black people smelling, he couldn't believe his father would rib the Governor about his odor.
"My backyard," said Fraux, "your backyard, the whole of Blue Line. Stench. Strange chemicals creeping toward St. Joseph Square. Rotten, shitty ditches and some gutsick, prime-time TV black folks."
"What'd Representative Buzby-what's-his-first-name do?"
"Clyde. He spoke without influence today. The poo-truckers own him. We're facing Third World diseases, Rex. An injection well behind the mobile home park is shooting toxins into the soil. The stuff is filtering back up."
"Dang tough to prove cause and effect in court."
"We have to shut down the well and clean the water."
"What about your Mayor?"
"He's no Mayor Bobby. Said go get money from the legislature."
"Stupid prick, he's got discretionary funds."
"No," said Fraux. "See here. The bill is step one: test the water. Step two is aborting the permit at Department of Natural Resources: kill that well. These actions in Blue Line are evil."
"Evil?" Rex LaSalle raised an eyebrow. "That's a big word."
Fraux pulled an envelope from his pocket. "Here, fifteen-hundred dollars. A token of appreciation from The African-American Voters League of Acadiana for ongoing efforts in our behalf."
"Manna falleth like gentle rain," said LaSalle, taking it.
Robert Lincoln was startled by his father's move.
"You in business with yo daddy?" asked the Governor.
"Nawsir. I'm a sophomore at LSU. Poli-sci major."
"They call it science," the Governor muttered.
Rex tossed the envelope into the boy's lap. "Now your father is an honorable man. Well regarded among the people. Bein' an observer of democracy yourself, Bob, you appreciate ramifications of our dialogue. First time I ever did pow-wow in a hearse. But Robert Lincoln, I ask you: is fifteen tomatoes enough to convince me I need to strong-arm some sorry-ass appropriation bill? I am dealing with the threshold! You're lookin' at one of the USA's seventy-five busiest men. Is this the threshold? Tell me, Bobby Fraux!"
"I don't know about that. But you ought to do it."
"Do it, you say! And why?" squealed the Governor.
"Your political base could be hurt in your hometown." Then he shut up.
"Astute young man you got here, Chris."
"We try, Rex. We try."
"Well so do I. Rob't, the envelope please."
The boy handed the envelope with the money to the Governor, who stuffed it in his pocket. "Thank you, Chris." Pump-shaking their hands, Rex stepped over his ally's knees. "And remember: y'all got this one for a Hershey bar."
The sweat on his back resembled a spectacular inkblot as he walked to his car. Mudd sat in the front. A young woman in a blue shirt with stars on the shoulders scooted over in the back. The red taillights dissolved into the night.
Fraux deposited himself in the front passenger seat. Driving down the road, Robert Lincoln said: "You think the bill will pass?"
"Today I thought not. Tonight I will sleep less fitfully."
"Then the money -- "
"The money is like seafood. In this state everyone eats."