Desire: Tales of New Orleans – William Sterling Walker (Chelsea Station Editions)

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I have yet to write my New Orleans book. Every writer who
spends time in that city seems to wind up writing something set there, and
though I’ve toyed with the setting in a couple of stories, I’ve not found a
plot that satisfies me enough to write it. Thankfully, that isn’t the case with
William Sterling Walker, whose Desire: Tales of New Orleans is steeped
in the humid soup and street gravy of the Big Easy.

New Orleans’s present is deeply connected to and reflective
of its history, and many of Walker’s characters reflect that connection. Jack
and Emmett in “Aubade,” Chip and Remy in “Farewell to Wise’s,” Tom and
Fortunate in “Fin de Siècle”—all share affairs, dead friends, old adventures,
and lingering regrets that put their present lives into perspective. And Walker
explores these connections with brilliant, in-depth conversations that sound
just like old friends talking.

In this vein, however, my favorite story has to be “Menuetto,”
which sees Stan visiting his old friend Bernard in the hospital as Bernard lies
dying of an AIDS-related complaint. Bernard recounts a particularly sordid
encounter with a military boy, and Stan realizes that he has been in love with
his old friend for as long as they’ve known other. It’s by turns touching,
funny, and captivating.

“Menuetto” as well as “Aubade” and others have several
common threads—art, music, culture and books. Most of all, books and
bookstores. Nearly every story features at least one bookstore prominently. And
many of Walker’s characters have a distrust of modern technology, a couple of
whom make a point of eschewing CDs for the ancient practice of playing vinyl
records on battered turntables yet still use cell phones. This is perfectly New
Orleans—technology for convenience, the old ways for pure enjoyment.

Bookending these marvelous stories that take place in the
Crescent City are two pieces that take place in New York with characters from
NOLA. The first, “Intricacies of Departure,” and the last, “Risk Factors,” both
involve two men meeting and parting, but with vastly different results. The
unnamed narrator of “Intricacies of Departure” regrets his new friend Nathan ‘s
departure, believing he needs the books that Nathan stole as proof of his
existence, but in “Risk Factors,” straight and married Elliott is relieved to
ditch out and proud Ernest because it saves not only his marriage but his
self-image as well. Still there’s an incredible amount of tension in Elliott,
because he knows what he sees in Ernest. And he knows it won’t go away.

And the feeling in the stories also doesn’t easily go
away—an ache of yearning, a touch of regret and the smile of memories. William
Sterling Walker has crafted a wonderful book of short fiction worth reading if
you love New Orleans. And even if you don’t.

But who wouldn’t?

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©, 2012, Jerry Wheeler

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