Unholy Trinities

Author Jason Berry on the real-life characters and the dream state that inspired LAST OF THE RED HOT POPPAS.



GW: This is your first novel. What made you decide to try your hand at fiction after six non-fiction books?

JB: I love literature and have read heavily since childhood. I review many novels, so the work itself was not alien to me. It's been 60 years since All the King's Men focused on the world of Huey Long -- or Willie Stark, as Robert Penn Warren called his man. I wanted to capture the era after the Long dynasty, as politics became a form of show business and people snored at the gigantic environmental damage. In the 1980s, I did a lot of political writing and investigative reports on politicians and waste pit deals. I was struck by the surreal politics -- so many extremes, such outrageous exaggerations, as in a novel by Garcia Márquez. In 1991, I spent stretches at Jimmy Swaggart's defamation trial, and then went out following the governor's race between David Duke against Edwin Edwards. Swaggart, Duke and Edwards -- the unholy trinity! I wanted to capture this bizarre outback of democracy by flavoring the narrative with rhythms of the music and the poetic way people speak. The big change between the Long era and the time of Edwards was the oil industry's power in bankrolling campaigns and getting elected officials to yawn at destruction of the environment. That's why the wetlands eroded: political cynicism. More than anyone else, Edwards personified that era now passing. There are a few surface affinities between Edwards and the fictional Governor Rex LaSalle. I'm confident that Rex stands out on his own. I would never accuse Edwards of wearing disguises in zydeco clubs, or telling a galpal, "I'm just a Roman from Ville Platte."

GW: You've written many articles and op-ed pieces about Louisiana politics and politicians. Several real-life characters clearly inspired some of the characters in your book. Who have been the main inspirations for your characters and story line?

JB: Actually, I'm not sure I'd agree that many real people are thinly disguised here.

The novel began with an image that came to me one day: the regal First Lady wakes up, crosses the hall and finds Rex dead in the spare bedroom, with lipstick traces just south of his equator. I wasn't sure where the story was leading me or who killed Rex for a time. I kept working at it slowly, and more characters came to me.

The initial, surface similarities between Edwards and Rex faded as LaSalle came into his own. Music is central to his character, and in that sense he's a little like the Bill Clinton who played saxophone in his 1992 campaign. In the end, though, how do you explain a governor who wears disguises in zydeco clubs? Edwards and Clinton are much too vain to do something like that. Now Reverend Christian Fraux is a composite drawn from several African-American preachers I have known, here and in Mississippi. Fraux's eulogy in the Capitol borrows a few lines from a sermon that Bishop Paul Morton gave at the funeral of Raymond Myles, the gospel singer. Jerry Lee Lewis has a walk-on moment in the novel as himself. Doctor Nobby, the rock promoter turned toxic waste dealer, is drawn from a gaggle of people I met in back rooms of music clubs. Some of those boys swagger around like cowboys and have such rippling music lingo.

Now as far as the crooked legislators scheming to get rid of the alcoholic lieutenant governor, I think I should shut up lest future phone calls not get returned.

GW: Who is your favorite character in the book, besides Rex?

JB: The state of Louisiana is the central character. Otherwise, I love them all. [Rex's girlfriend] Sophie Thibodeaux's spiritual quest was influenced by clergy abuse survivors I interviewed for Lead Us Not Into Temptation. Henry Hubbell, the protagonist, has certain overtones of me in my thirties, all that idealism and outrage mixed together like Maker's Mark and Peychaud's bitters. What I learned about the Catholic hierarchy concealing pedophiles has rendered me more a stoic, taking a longer view of the human experiment. I feel closer, ironically, to Christian Fraux, the black preacher, undertaker and moral intelligence of the novel. Reverend Fraux's crisis -- unable to pray as he takes charge of the governor's body, with the FBI chasing him -- comes closer to my own stumbling spiritual quest, learning to pray all over again through all that muckraking. Writing this novel was a way of reaffirming my belief in comedy, and the music that has given me such mooring in life. First Lady Amelia LaSalle reminds me of any number of Southern ladies who combine elegance and toughness. As the father of a daughter in college, I'd have to say that Mayor Bobby Broussard -- Amelia's daddy -- became more real to me in the final stages of composition.

GW: Who are your favorite real-life political characters in Louisiana? And why?

JB: Earl Long. His madness mirrored the racial insanity of the 1950s, when I was a kid, and watched his meltdown on TV at my father's urging. My play, Earl Long In Purgatory, dealt with certain matters that mark the novel -- the quest for salvation, life after the fall. The main characters in the novel at one point or another end up talking to God. These Catholic themes rather stalk me. I blame it on the Jesuits.

Until Katrina, Aaron Broussard never meant much to me either way -- I live in Orleans, he's the president of Jefferson Parish. We talked on the phone once but I didn't really know him. On the news, he seemed adroit; then I saw him break down on that CNN interview during the hurricane and suddenly wanted to bear-hug him. We know now he got some of his facts confused in the interview, but he spoke from his soul and it moved me. I realize many Jefferson voters resent him for sending the pump operators to Washington Parish before the flood. I'm not excusing that. I only mean to say that on CNN he was so deeply human, broken up, sobbing, and his agony captured a deep reality.

Nagin is different. It's easier to forgive his blunders during Katrina than to swallow his preening in the national media now. He ooozes charm but just has no clue how to run a city. And so he perfectly mirrors the schizophrenia of the body politic: All these closet Confederates who voted for him because they hate the Landrieus for being too liberal -- and then all those blacks who voted for Nagin as their guy, despite his rank failure to deliver a plan for rebuilding black neighborhoods. It's like jury nullification, vote against your own interests. If I were God I'd order Ray Nagin to sit down in a room with Moon Landrieu and take notes for four days.


Add a comment