It’s 2006, and the birds are dying in New Orleans. This isn’t the biggest problem Maurice Delahoussaye faces: his wife, anchorwoman Vivian, is pregnant by a local politician; his daughter Audrey is sleeping with her calculus teacher; his son Brandon is cutting school to smoke pot; New Orleans is still reeling from Katrina; and the government is poisoning the water and air to run experiments on the city’s survivors. (One of these problems may exist more in Maurice’s head than in reality.) The birds are both symptom and symbol of the chaos engulfing the city at large and Maurice specifically; and in the face of these threats, he makes ready to protect his family, come hell or high water, with both hilarious and tragic results.
Like all good books about New Orleans, In the City of Falling Stars, by Chris Tusa, is a sharp-edged farce: awful things happen and people die; but in between, people run around prioritizing their pet eccentricities over mundane tasks like paying bills or keeping their lives from collapsing.
Last year, I wrote that Moira Crone’s The Ice Garden was the best fictional depiction of mental illness I’d ever read. I still think so—from the outside perspective. Tusa’s matter-of-fact description of Maurice’s increasingly irrational thinking, slowly but inexorably becoming more tangled, is one of the best narrative strategies I’ve ever encountered. It would be easy to try to write panic, to follow Maurice’s thoughts going round and round; but that’s the kind of gimmick you have to craft exactly right or risk it sounding absurd. Instead, Tusa starts with casual idiosyncrasies that are familiar enough.
Maurice worries about common household dangers, reciting statistics about things like electrical fires—not so weird. He thinks fluoride is poison—we all had an aunt like that. By the time Maurice begins believing that the government has placed Bluetooth-enabled microchips in his macaroni, we’re so comfortable with this loving man and the way he thinks that we can see how he got there. There’s no doubt, by a certain point in the novel, that Maurice suffers from intense and dangerous delusions; Tusa’s real success is in so vividly painting this ill character that we understand him and, to an extent, follow his train of thought. Maurice never devolves into a Napoleon-hat caricature.
The real delight of In the City of Falling Stars is the conversations. Cutting, casual, intense, offhand, or off-the-wall bizarre, every conversation in the book, without exception, rings true. Tusa’s characters, in the nested pressure cookers of the storm-smacked city and their own personal crises, blurt out revelations and shoot ferocious barbs, making every character almost painfully realized. Except for sweet, crazy Maurice and his road-to-hell sweetheart-deal’s worth of good intentions, none of these people are pleasant. These sharp-tongued, impulsive characters would fray anyone’s nerves; but we come to understand them well enough to see how they love each other—and to remember the adage that to love someone is not the same as to like them.
It’s been a long time since I identified with teenage characters—I didn’t really like teenagers much even when I was one—so I was startled that my favorite characters were Maurice’s children. Ferocious Audrey declares war on her mother the minute she learns of Vivian’s infidelity, swinging her verbal battle-ax as hard as she can, even as she finds herself really, really needing advice from another woman. Fatalistic Brandon jokes and bellyaches his way through the story, sneaking off to get stoned because, hey, he’s just going to come down with his family’s insanity soon anyway, and if you only have a couple of rational years left it’s hard to justify spending them in high school. These characters hit close to home and I loved them.
You can read In the City of Falling Stars quickly; it’s not long, and Tusa’s writing style is clean without being plain. Most novels last too long or end too abruptly; this is one of the latter, and the climactic event, in particular, speeds by—somewhere in Purgatory, John Kennedy Toole wishes he could have given notes on that rushed, but conceptually brilliant, scene before Tusa published. Still, this book was a true and unexpected treat.