All his life, Gus Weill has been distracted by a restless mind incapable of sticking to one subject for long. That peripatetic nature led to turns as a political consultant, an advertising executive, a gubernatorial adviser, TV and radio host, poet, biographer and now, at last, full-time novelist.
Weill, 71, arrives in New Orleans this week with a ribald novel in tow: The Cajuns ($24, Simon & Schuster, 292 pages), published this month. In the book, the Lafayette native depicts the Cajun world in all of its colorful excesses. From food to sex to religion and, of course, politics, it is a relentless tribute to the spirit of Acadiana.
It resulted from a conversation with Weill's most famous protege, the political strategist James Carville. The two men were tossing ideas around when Carville, best known for leading Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, threw down a proclamation along the lines of, "It's the Cajuns, stupid."
In a telephone interview from New York City, where he has lived since December 2002, Weill remembers the conversation that led to his new novel. "He said to me, Gus, you ought to write a book about the Cajun people because you know them so well,'" Weill recalls. "And he's such a brilliant man, when he gives me an idea, it's pretty hard to walk away. But it was a terrible challenge, you know?"
Eventually, the plot came together. Weill hung his story on an aging, corrupt state senator named Papoot Gaspard gasping for political life after 36 years in office. His tormentor? The owner of the Esso station, President Prejean. Papoot's son-in-law, Bobby Boudreaux, is the sheriff of fictional Richelieu Parish, as well as the novel's conscience. The local priest, Father Justin, is Papoot's son. Throw in a smoldering newspaper reporter, Ruth Ann Daigle, and the mysterious death of a child named Ti Boy Brouliette, and matters become much more interesting -- and vexing -- for the sheriff and the parish powerbrokers.
Weill has written two more novels since he finished The Cajuns. Now that he's in his 70s, "this old bad thing called mortality enters the picture. I'm writing as fast as I can."
FOR WEILL, A FORMER EXECUTIVE SECRETARY to Gov. John McKeithen and the host of public TV's long-running Louisiana Legends series, the combination of 1950s Acadiana and a rich election milieu allowed for ample mining of his lengthy career as a political consultant. Beyond McKeithen's successful gubernatorial runs, Weill has worked with more than 350 political campaigns during his lengthy career. Writing this novel, he said, allowed him to fictionalize some of his favorite political episodes.
"Gus was always telling stories, from the first day I met him," Carville says in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. "There aren't many people who can tell you the same story, like, 11 times and still make you want to hear it again. He's the best raconteur I've ever met."
Petty theft, sexual misadventure and corruption oozes through Richelieu Parish. When Papoot visits the local bordello, he's not a paying customer, he's a paid customer. Hurphy Perrault, the powerful attorney, makes justice a profitable endeavor far beyond client fees. Small-town life, in all its claustrophobic familiarity and stark pecking orders, rings true in Weill's depiction. The banker calls in notes early to put pressure on the newspaper to drop a divisive story. Much of the town business is decided not at City Hall, but at the barbershop. And, this being a story of Cajuns, food is forever taking center stage: cakes, gumbos, jambalayas and all the rest.
With Weill, the writing and the story are like spicy boudin: You don't always like what's in it, you're not sure how it came together, but, damn, it sure is tasty. Best of all, he has the penchant for Cajun humor -- and tall tales -- nailed, not to mention the addictive nature of bourrée.
During a tense car ride, for example, Papoot watches intently an argument between the sheriff and Father Justin. The tension builds as the two men bicker over the cleansing effects of confession and prayer. "I tell Him everything," the priest says. "He knows everything anyway." Says the sheriff: "You must bore Him, Justin, you ain't got all that many sins."
On another occasion, Papoot visits the local sex shop seeking a more lucrative kickback from Misty, the proprietor. As they discuss terms, the senator spots Hurphy Perrault, the town's well-to-do attorney, being chatted up by one of the call girls. "She's wasting her time on Hurphy, that's one slick lawyer," Papoot tells Misty. Her response? "Everybody's slick, until they get a hard-on."
WHEN WALTER ISACCSON covered Louisiana politics for the New Orleans States-Item, Weill was among a group of colorful consultants -- Ray Strother, Shelly Beychock and Carville, among them -- who delighted in the flamboyant lore of the state's political scene. It is only fitting, Isaacson says, that Weill is now telling stories in novels rather than political backrooms. Isaacson, the best-selling biographer of Benjamin Franklin and a former executive at Time magazine and CNN, uses the same word Carville does when describing Weill: raconteur.
"Gus's love of people comes through in his novel," Isaacson says. "It has spice and a lot of colorful characters."
Those characters are familiar to anyone who's spent time in south Louisiana, characters armed with outsized personalities and wayward moral compasses. There's the shady insurance broker, Tooky Trahan; the ubiquitous, rascally centenarian Nonc Doucet; Big Shot (and Li'l Shot) Fontenot, the men behind every financial transaction, big or small; the local dancehall band, Papa Sotile and the Richelieu Gents; and, of course, the blather-filled local DJ, Na Na Duhon.
Asides on Huey Long's assassination -- and the attendant assassin's bullets lodged in the state capitol -- and political haunts offer a glimpse into the undying passion among Louisianians for campaigns, elections and legislative horse-trading.
Consider, for example, Weill's description of Papoot's waning popularity:
"Many vowed to vote his ass right out of Baton Rouge the very next opportunity. Give another fool a chance, and any man named President Prejean had to be a fool for sure. So far as they knew, President was not yet a crook, but they acknowledged at his filling station, there wasn't much opportunity. Also, they were prepared to accept a little stealing his first term or so. But they didn't want him rubbing their faces in it."
Are we talking Sixty Rayburn or Edwin Edwards here? Weill's not saying; he's just enjoying the rascals he's created, and witnessed. "You'll recognize some of these characters," Weill says. And then, keeping in character, he slips into a series of vignettes and anecdotes, each introduced with a seductive query: "Can I tell you a story? Do you have time to hear this?"
As the ultimate insider (he grew up in Lafayette) and outsider (he was part of the city's tiny Jewish population), Weill gleaned the essence of Cajun life. He has the region's patois, its rhythm and its unique flavor, but keeps his cayenne creations from lapsing into caricature -- no small feat in Louisiana literary endeavors. Mossy oaks and rosary-draped Catholics are fine, but not without a compelling narrative. The Cajuns delivers on all counts and, for this reader, offers a worth-Weill pastime.
- With The Cajuns, Lafayette native Gus Weill depicts the world of Acadiana in all of its colorful excesses.