A new visitor to New Orleans asks the waiter about an item on the menu. "Wop salad? It's an Italian salad, but we ain't got enough of 'em here to worry about what we call 'em." The visitor does not ask about a human being salad, so the waiter does not have to explain that there are so few decent human beings in New Orleans as well.
"Wop salad" I heard from someone else recently. The human being line you can guess from Jeff Gulvin's PROCESSION. His New Orleans is not the sort of place you visit, it's the port where prisoners and drugs are trans-shipped. If you're lucky the longshoremen don't care about you, it's when they start to take an interest that you should fear the worst. And the worst these boys can do is worse than you can possibly fear.
We're talking about boys like Augustine Laveaux and his cousin Ignace, and the more distant relatives they breed in the bayou like 'gators. They've got mammies so reverted in nature that they sit on their stoops and turn their blind faces to the sun like plants, while making their "gris gris" chicken claw charms to empower the clan. As FBI investigator Harrison discovers these boys put the "cage" in "cajun". That knowledge, though, is a long time in coming.
Somewhere north, up near D.C. Maxwell Carter, a Federal fingerprint analyst, has been found dead, his thigh cut so he has bled to death. Unfortunately, his murderer has left him tied up - there's no chance of freaky Max being thought a suicide. Max is of interest to the Bureau because he has been making long distance telephone calls to dubious probation officers. And Max has recently been reviewing some unidentified prints taken from an unsolved child-killing back in the bayou. There is many a man who has made a success of business since his one illegality, and he would be willing to pay Max and friends to ensure that he stays unidentified. Either pay or murder. Particularly murder if his successful business now is running drugs through New Orleans - it becomes second nature, and nature is something the boys from the bayou have in groves. That is how Harrison is sent back to N'Orleans, a place he thought he had left far behind him.
On the other hand, Harrison has been out of Vietnam for a long time, too, and he knows he can never put that behind him. Like Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Harrison (perhaps the name is a tribute) is a veteran of the tunnels, though it is only as THE PROCESSION develops that we discover that Harrison, unlike Bosch, definitely has innocent blood on his hands - a boy killed, sheltering below ground. So when Harrison discovers the children being run by the Laveauxes the case begins to take its strain on him.
THE PROCESSION is a big book, and to make it that, Jeff Gulvin has had to work on filling it. So there are all social levels - from the state government to run-away kids and crack whores on the streets; from lawyers who have pulled themselves out of the gutter to sleazy cops on the take; and all types of geography - the bayou, the cemeteries, the ghettoes, the city parks. Harrison even has entry to the music rooms and musicians of the city. To encompass these Gulvin has to let his plot line run loose, but the book suffers - they needed to be kept tauter. You'll keep reading because surprises do come, and most of them he signals so you'll only blame yourself for not spotting what is going to happen next. Your sense of shock, though, will be lessened because you'll be thinking "Did I need to read about fifty pages of river water?" and "Does Ignace have to visit his Nannan so often, to so little result?".
Just as Maxwell Carter and other characters have a hidden life, THE PROCESSION has something in it not made manifest.
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