By Charles Rammelkamp
From the emphatic denial implicit in the title – NO is short for New Orleans, but the negativity is no coincidence – it’s clear the three novellas that make up this wonderful, lyrical, earthy book are full of a sense of loss, ranging from the elegiac to the tragic. The narrative focuses on Keller Hardy and Henry Gereighty, two gay men who live in the twilight of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Both are on a quest for love and self-discovery, the metaphor of a seafaring Odysseus-like voyage applicable to both. Indeed, the title of the first novella, which focuses on Keller, In Irons, is a nautical term, which basically means “going nowhere.” Like Odysseus leaving Ithaca for Troy and returning twenty years later, The City of NO begins in My Enemy’s Dog Pub in the French Quarter, where Keller Hardy is a bartender, and it ends in the same place, Henry Gereighty having returned from his own travels to New Orleans. What happens in between is the journey of discovery.
Keller’s story takes place over two years, beginning in 2010 and concluding in 2012. The story takes place in the wake of “The Catastrophe,” Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the city. “The Catastrophe forced an entire region of people to recreate themselves.” Keller’s recreation is compounded by the fact that he is gay.
The wind and sea exposed what he had buried in sacred ground after having become known as a gay man. In the beginning what that meant for him was throw-away employment. Keller and all the survivors like him had eclipsed into Throw-Away People and there was a shift that ran them all underground. In the wake of The Catastrophe in the City of NO Keller’s contributions to the reconstruction were pouring liquor, opening bottles, and talking: bartender….
He flees the city in his boat, the Merlin, named after the sorcerer, and much of what happens to him in his subsequent travels to South Carolina and Florida feels magical, surreal: metaphorical. The shark attacks are one, “for hunters, like killers, are cosmically united.” His wanderings seem futile, frustrating, and by the end, when he is returning to the City of NO, he is pursued by a Great White shark, obsessed and thwarted as Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Dick. Does Keller live? Does he commit suicide? Is he drowned? The end of In Irons feels ambiguous, but then we switch focus to Henry Gereighty.
Henry’s story widens the scope. He is the protagonist of the next two novellas, Henry Gereighty and Storage. Henry appears to be five or ten years older than Keller, who is 41 when his story ends. For with Henry, a playwright who originally came to New Orleans to find himself (inspired by Tennessee Williams), we learn about The Genocide.
In the 1980s the President of the United States committed an act of Genocide against the gay community, declaring war not only on a generation of men given a death sentence, but on an entire generation of children discovering who they were. Henry was taught to hate himself; existing in Survivor Mode, navigating a violent Christian occupation that kept him isolated and in fear of all the things he was.
Henry, too, is in search of love and acceptance. He grew up queer in a small Tennessee town, feeling so alone and “wrong.” He fled to New Orleans. “The City of New Orleans taught Henry Gereighty how to be gay. Then, despite the Southern world that questioned his existence, he taught himself how to be a playwright.” Then came Katrina.
In the first novella, we encounter Henry groping his way through existence, giving up on being a playwright – though he has had several plays successfully produced. He encounters various people in bars and “out in the country,” from Frankie St. Pierre to an unnamed lawyer to a rock-throwing gimp, having sex and getting drunk. By the end, in an internal debate, he concludes, “You have to reinvent yourself.”
The next novella, Storage, is the reinvention. It begins with a quick scene from 1983, Henry virtually kicked out of the small town by his father for being gay, but then it’s 2009 and Henry is returning home to Tennessee (his “roots”?) to help his ailing father die. There is so much compassion and forgiveness here that it kind of emphasizes the pointlessness of the father’s bigoted hatred in the first place. In one telling passage, Henry advises another smalltown gay man, Will, to move to Atlanta, where there is a thriving, supportive gay community, but Will resists, wary of going to ”an enclave.” With resignation, Will says that he has “adapted” to his home. Henry objects. “If for no other reason you can always find someone like you to not be alone with. Here, in places like this, you’re always alone. Always.”
Henry’s father Eustus does die, and though Henry bas done nothing but comfort the old man, the effect is nevertheless liberating.
He could smell true freedom then for he understood the exorcism. “You’re gone now, daddy. Now it’s just me.”
For the first time in his life, Henry Gereighty was not governed by regrets, and he only dreamed of possibility, even in the face of loneliness.
And then a few days later, back in the City of NO, Henry goes to My Enemy’s Dog Pub, and the reader will need to read this for him- or herself to appreciate the full effect.
The City of NO is such a powerful, lyrical, melancholy book whose impact will remain with the reader for some time.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1938144708/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was published by Future Cycle Press. Most recently Catastroika was released by Apprentice House in 2020.