New Orleans – Behind the Masks of America’s Most Exotic City
by Carol Flake
Rating – 9/10
Summary – Carol Flake gives a terrific view of Mardi Gras in New Orleans from three different perspectives.
Review – Back in 1995, I took a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), and I happened into the now-defunct Bookstar outlet on Decatur Street, where I bought a new book titled New Orleans by Carol Flake. I enjoyed New Orleans and – while I don’t usually keep books for long – I did keep New Orleans. Seventeen years later, I just reread the book and it is still terrific.
3 NOLA Communities in 1992
Flake presents New Orleans in 1992 as a rotting city whose residents fight over what’s left – tourism and Mardi Gras. For the 1992 celebration, New Orleans’ black-majority City Council passed an ordnance that required the white-controlled Mardi Gras krewes to integrate. Flake uses the unfolding controversy to explain New Orleans through the eyes of 3 communities:
– first, Flake discusses the white, uptown krewes that controlled NOLA’s traditional Mardi Gras celebration. These krewes were the focus of the anti-discrimination ordnance and it would have been easy for Flake to paint them as one-dimensional villains. While she does not agree with these people, she does paint a more-complex picture.
Readers learn that many of the old, traditional NOLA families have little other than their good names and their connections to other blue blood families. By 1992, the families’ political power was largely gone; economic power had passed to newcomers (many of them Texans); and – in many cases – the children of the blue bloods had moved away from NOLA.
– second, Flake examines the black community. Her discussion here focuses less on the politics and more on the black community’s Mardi Gras traditions. Flake introduces the readers to many black Mardi Gras participants and she also describes the divisions between Creole (mixed race) and darker-skinned blacks in NOLA.
The blacks with whom Flake discusses the ordnance are ambivalent on the anti-discrimination ordnance; while some are in favor, others see it as the unnecessary intrusion of politics into a fun activity. On the whole, the discussion of the black community doesn’t have the impact of her discussion of the uptown whites. When Flake shifts her attention from the ordnance, her story loses power. What’s left is entertaining, but less consequential.
– finally, Flake discusses the gay and bohemian communities. The reader learns that when Flake lived in New Orleans (1969-1977), she spent time with NOLA’s “arty” residents. She discusses the ravages of AIDS among the gay community and explains why the avant garde is attracted to NOLA, despite its many problems. This is by far the most- personal section of the book, as Flake reveals herself to readers.
A Gifted Writer
Flake had a great story to tell with 1992‘s Mardi Gras, and she does it justice with some fantastic prose. At its best, New Orleans makes you feel as though you are at Mardi Gras. Consider her description of the Comus parade (the traditional highlight of NOLA’s Fat Tuesday):
“There was always something eerie and phantomlike about the spectacle of Comus, the floats rumbling down Saint Charles to Canal Street at twilight on Mardi Gras day, the faces of the masked riders lit by the fires of the flambeaux, the naptha-powered torches, carried by strong black men who danced in the streets with their flaming burdens like circus performers. To bystanders on the sidewalks, the parade seemed to materialize out of nowhere in the flow of the flambeaux and then to disappear without a trace” (p. 97).
In places, Flake can be a little flowery. Also, she can use obtuse academic jargon – “the inverted reliquary of a mad apostate, a catechismic nightmare of flagellatory titillation, apostolic prodigality, unredemptive icons, and unconditional indulgences” (p. 169).
The 1992 Season
As Mardi Gras 1992 progresses, the discrimination controversy fades and New Orleans loses some of its punch. During the season, Flake attends many of the balls and has interesting observations about each of them. I particularly like her vivid, entertaining description of riding in a parade with a women’s krewe. (But, for my taste, she spends too much time discussing the clothing worn at the balls and in the parades).
Much has been written and said about Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In my humble opinion, Carol Flake’s New Orleans is the best book on the subject.