Summer Reading: “French Quarter Fables”
Pelican Bomb continues our ode to summer reading with Benjamin Morris on Dalt Wonk's French Quarter Fables.
Time, it is often said, slows down in the summer. As the days lengthen, bodies go slack in the heat, and busy, driven locals take off on vacations to parts unknown. For those otherwise in need of relief from these long, languid days, then look no further than a book in which time seems not just to slow down but to stop completely. French Quarter Fables (Luna Press, 2012) is an illustrated collection of 37 tales of wisdom and woe, drawn from Dalt Wonk’s decades as a resident of the Vieux Carré and observer of all that neighborhood has to offer. Written as well as illustrated by Wonk, published in a large-format folio, and bound as an art book with illustrations to accompany each tale, the collection would on its sheer size and weight qualify at first glance for a coffee table book.
But woe indeed to the reader who treats this collection only as such and leaves it on said table unopened. For French Quarter Fables has much to offer all readers, no matter their age or level of experience in New Orleans. Hewing closely to the traditional form—short tales, with morals or bons mots at their end and peopled exclusively by animals in clothes (Wonk’s self-proclaimed delight)—their chief concern dwells on what Faulkner would have called “the old verities”: greed, lust, revenge, anger, pride, sorrow, and desire. If it is through pain and loss that we gain the most wisdom, then what Wonk has done here is collected enough wisdom to last a lifetime. In other words, throughout the book, we are given the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes.
Despite the many mistakes committed by their characters, the fables’ poetic form lends the desired air of whimsy that prevents any one reading from taking them too seriously. With only a few minor exceptions, Wonk pairs his representatives from the animal kingdom nicely, and sketches them both in words and images in such a way as to reveal the full range of their emotions. Among the best are “The Minnow and the Pike,” a jibe at the hubris of a bloodthirsty king (the pike, a thinly-disguised Louis XIV), or “The Hippo and the Egret,” a satisfying tale of just desserts. But it is those tales in which the tragedy arises from no particular character flaw, as in “The Frog and the Lizard,” that ring the most true for the average reader—who among us has not tarried too long in one place, only to find what we’ve waited for has already fled? Some even approach the sublime: "The Young Tree and the Hurricane," for instance, speaks of a beautiful young tree seduced by a visiting storm. In language as sensitive as it is passionate, Wonk describes how “He whirled her, swirled her, arched her, pressed her tight, / amidst a darkness, total as a cave, / except for the sporadic thunderbolt / that flickered like a light-struck jewel, / revealing a chaos of things torn loose and flying — / as though the world had risen in revolt.” With superb pacing and rhythm, and just the right metaphor for the situation, here the work shines as brightly as anything in the book.
As the title of the book—and Wonk’s introduction—indicates, many of these fables are drawn from his own experience in New Orleans. Those characters, encounters, and settings will be recognizable to anyone who has lived here more than a day, and it is difficult to resist welcoming even the city’s most egregious stereotypes with anything other than glee. The tempestuous weather, the provincialism of various neighborhoods (Uptown matrons, Marigny/Bywater scroungers, and literal Quarter rats), and the flora and fauna so well-known to locals (night-blooming jasmine and swarming termites) all make cameo appearances, simultaneously grounding the book in place and visualizing those clichés individuals often don’t even realize they adopt. “The Caterpillar and the Ant” and “The Butterfly and the Roach” will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in the local service industry, featuring, respectively, an insufferable patron and a lascivious, aggressive manager. Even neighborhood gentrification—in “The Snake and the Mouse”—is given a moment in the spotlight, leading one to wonder whether there might have been a term for the process in Aesop’s Greek.
Wonk is particularly strong on the fables that involve the performing arts (e.g. “The Frog and the Summer Rain,” “The Termite and the Tree Trunk”), which comes as no surprise given his long career as a playwright and theater critic. In these tales, pride and professional avarice often meet their necessary ends. “The Comic Duo” features a Fred-and-Ginger pair of performing felines; when the dainty lady steals the thunder of the lowly tom, his derangement at her success escorts his ruined ego back to the streets. “Envy is the dark side of ambition,” Wonk concludes, and in as small a theater town as New Orleans, it may be better not to ask of whom he was thinking when he set this particular fable to the page.
This is not to say that the collection is without its flaws, however, best expressed as a lament: as good as these fables are, the book would, paradoxically, have benefitted from fewer of them. A reduction in number—down to 25 or 30—would have allowed those which end too abruptly to be more fully developed. Likewise, the selection could have focused on the most brilliant rather than the occasionally casual construction of some poems. As deft a wordsmith as Wonk is—whose neologisms include the marvelous "rodentariat," and whose rhymes include such felicitous pairings as "veranda" and "memoranda," or "Apollo" and "wallow"—a number of the poems are crafted in uneven, sprawling lines, sometimes of only one or two words in total, for no apparent reason. Granted, for a book of whimsical fables, such criticism may come off as overly severe, given that for most readers problems of poetic lineation are on par with concerns that some spaghetti strands are longer than others on their plate. But for poets and lovers of poetry—undoubtedly part of Wonk’s core readership—certain poems stand out as curiously unfinished, or simply less worked in comparison to the others, and not for lack of skill. Wonk’s nimble versification at his best (“The Butterfly and the Rose” is extraordinary) suggests that all the poems could have been more polished had he wished. As they stand, we wonder why they were not.
As poets from Pope to Lear to Silverstein have taught us, whimsy is never just that: like the blade of a knife tracing lazy-eights on the skin, its playful tickle always has an edge. (“First you get them laughing,” the Scottish poet Ivor Cutler once said, “Then, while their mouths are open, you pour the poison in.”) If French Quarter Fables stumbles, it does so only through its abundance of ambition, much like the Tomcat of the above mentioned “Comic Duo.” There is, at the end of the day, much to love about the book, and it deserves to be read and appreciated by more than just locals or collectors of New Orleaniana. Wonk’s admiration for the people, the predicaments, and the pleasures and perils of life in this fabulous city is visibly expressed on every page. The best way to appreciate his efforts in turn is to walk with him through its streets; as both guide and raconteur, his company is of the highest quality.
French Quarter Fables is available for purchase online from Luna Press.