Picks and Pans Review: The Ritz of the Bayou

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Nancy Lemann

Peculiar, annoying, insidious, shrewd, fascinating—this book was made to be strewn with adjectives. Written by the New Orleans author whose 1985 novel Lives of the Saints was equally idiosyncratic, it is a semi journalistic account of the fraud and racketeering trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1985-86 (the first trial ended with a hung jury, the second in acquittal). "Semi journalistic" because Lemann adopted a bizarre, impressionistic approach to describing the case. At times she seems to be borrowing from the styles of Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Breslin, Sally Quinn, Norman Mailer, Ann Landers and Damon Runyon, with an occasional touch perhaps inspired by Charlie Brown's Peanuts co-star, Lucy. Describing a defense lawyer, she writes, "At the Lafayette Hotel we sat with Camille Gravel and his wife. Seventy and in love, it is a fine thing to see." Of a religious radio station in New Orleans, she says: "These born-again Christians seem to be pretty dim bulbs." She quotes a schoolboy of about 10, attending the trial with his class: "Miss Brown, why do we have to not make a single noise? Why do we have to line up? Why are we going in the courtroom? Why are we going in now?" She also quotes Edwards: "The truth is something that even if it doesn't seem right at the beginning, it later develops that way." Woven among such intermittently relevant passages are oblique allusions to Lemann's own love life—her coyness over this can be hard to take—and refrains that appear too often to be accidental. Here are some of the themes: "There is so much human frailty floating around that it is a dramatic thing to see"..."In the South, you tend your own garden"..."You can only state the condition of the thing you love, despite its flaws. You may be filled with longing and unease, but one thing you know—when you are there, your ticker's back in business." Lemann seems to delight in outrageous generalizations and corny clichés. She does an atrocious job of explaining the charges against Edwards. What's astonishing is that her motley array of anecdotes and observations coalesces, in a kind of verbal pointillism, into a sharp portrait of life and politics in a region where ruthless charm and style define integrity. She suggests, using the literary equivalent of ruthless charm and style, that there can be much truth even where there are few facts. (Knopf, $15.95)

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