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The Real Book of Love

Review of

The Mystick Krewe of Swan Songs by Darlene Olivo. Donaldsonville, Louisiana: Margaret Media, 2014

Back in 1958, Nola Bridges used to dance to some of the recorded Doo Wop music that Poppa Stoppa (WWNR 900 AM) and other DJs were playing on the New Orleans radio stations. She would put her cigarette-pack-sized transistor to her ear and sing along with the Monotones, who were musing to their teenaged listeners, Oh, I wonder, wonder who, who-oo-ooh, who, who, mmbadoo-ooh, oh who wrote the book of love, or some such doowopian lyric. 

Little did Nola know back then that the answer to the question of "Who wrote the book of love?" would be Darlene Olivo. And Nola certainly did not know that she herself, the famous, flaming red-haired Nola Bridges, New Orleans entertainer par excellence, would be one of the main characters in said book, mmbadoo-ooh.

The fabled book of love has just been released—on February 15, 2014, by no coincidence the very day in the New Orleans’ carnival season when the parade of that always Mystick Krewe rolls through the streets along that most ancient of city routes. 

Nola Bridges and her consort Earl Wagner may be characters in this monumental New Orleans text, but these two semi-working class heroes, their neighbors and friends, and the Uptown elites who share the city of New Orleans are also scattered, as only archetypes can be, across thousands of humble wooden houses and stuccoed masonry mansions all over the city. If you live in New Orleans, you know these people. You may live next door to them. They might be in your family. They might even be you. You know them, and you have to love them and the city that co-evolved with such varieties of human beings.

Krewe of Swan Songs is the book of love of New Orleans, an enormously complex tableau vivant of the city and the characters who live there. "Characters" is actually too weak a word to describe the kinds of people you will meet in this epic tome. Each is more memorable than the next. They are drawn with such a fine point that they jump out of the text.  You can hear and see them on the streets, at the beauty parlors, at the track, at the uptown tennis clubs. You laugh at their predicaments and dialogue, and you see all of them, uptown and downtown alike, hurrying to get a good spot to catch the parade of the Mystick Krewe of Swan Songs and watch themselves on the wobbling papier-maché and faux gold foil-flecked floats.

Olivo's book is not a Boethian confederacy of smart or dumb people, but a constant parade of costumed and masked characters in a carnival that would never even think of ending on Ash Wednesday, but keeps rolling every day of the year. A year-round carnival of masking, crazy costumes, carrying-on, dancing and music everywhere, excesses and reversals, cross-dressing and cross-thinking, a calendar of exuberance and lust for living and dying: that is the picaresque plot of this book.

The swans of the Krewe swam out of the lagoons in City Park, glided up and down Bayou St. John, waddled over to the river and went uptown, downtown, and over to the West Bank.  Swans are not supposed to make any sound, except at their death, when they sing a remarkable and beautiful song. It isn't true; most do not hear their heart song. Olivo's characters are New Orleans swans singing their patooties off. No one--not Ken, Walker, Lyle, Grace, Sherwood, and William--has been able to hear so well the intricate notes and subtle tones and soaring, sometimes grating arpeggios of these characters in the French Opera House tableaux vivant that is daily life in New Orleans.

Reviewed by Stephen Duplantier

Stephen Duplantier is an artist and writer from New Orleans, 7th Ward, just off old Bayou Gentilly. He also resided in the drained swamp on the west side of the old Shell Road halfway to Milneburg,along the route of the old Smoky Mary. He now lives in Costa Rica on the side of a mountain at the edge of a cloud forest. He edits, designs, and publishes NEOTROPICA.