Off Magazine Street

Apr 23, 2007

Obviously, I have come late to this novel. By the time I became aware of it, Off Magazine Street, published in 2004, was already a movie, A Love Song for Bobby Long, starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson.

Books arrive in one's hand in many different ways. Last fall I was at a party on Dog River in Fairhope. The yard of the house next door to the party was a kind of art gallery. There were sculptures, installations, decorations of all bizarre sorts. I met the next-door neighbor, who turned out to be Ronald Everett Capps, an artist and writer, and when he learned I had not read his book, he went next door, got a copy, and gave it to me.

Obviously, I have come late to this novel. By the time I became aware of it, Off Magazine Street, published in 2004, was already a movie, A Love Song for Bobby Long, starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson of Girl with the Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation fame.

Off Magazine Street is set in New Orleans, before Hurricane Katrina. It features two men, Bobby Long and Byron Jones. Bobby is 54, seven years older than Byron, and both men are from fictional Eanes, Alabama. Both are dedicated alcoholics, but not quite winos, since they drink Popov vodka, have small incomes, and live indoors. Both men have seriously flawed pasts and broken marriages.

Bobby and Byron used to be Southern gentlemen, in their ways. They were handsome young men, and athletes. Bobby was an officer in the United States Marine Corps, earned a Ph.D. from Auburn, and was for a time a college professor.

Byron had played high school football as a quarterback and then, alas, fell into bad company: "Byron started down the wrong path during his days at the University of Alabama. A lust for wine, women, song and good writing had been his undoing . . . . The boy took to drinking and reading too many books, his father said" Byron taught high school in Eanes until the "scandal."

When the novel opens, Byron and Bobby have moved to New Orleans together, where they at first share a cheap hotel room and also share an obese mental patient named Lorraine. Lorraine dies and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hanna, a runaway, shows up. Bobby and Byron take Hannah in, originally with carnal intentions. Hannah is a ninth-grade dropout who has lived by her wits and off men since she ran away, trading sex for room and board, and Bobby and Byron would like it a lot if Hanna took the place of her mother.

But things shift, and the men slowly, ever so slowly, become surrogate fathers to Hanna, get her back into high school, and finally, after a hilarious scene with the president of Tulane, into Sophie Newcomb.

Although the men continue to drink, behave badly, and curse like the alcoholics they are?in fact, there are too many scenes of Popov parties with their wino neighbors? the novel turns nearly sweet. These two drunks remind one of Mack and the boys in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. Just as there are fictional whores with hearts of gold, there are fictional drunks with tender hearts, also. They never quite give up trying to seduce Hanna, but their aforementioned good hearts just aren't in it.

It is easy to see why Travolta bought Off Magazine Street. Mickey Rourke had his fun playing the drunken down-and-outer in Barfly, as did Jack Nicholson in Ironweed and Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. These roles generate in actors the same nostalgie de la bou as is generated in readers.

These two drunks are highly literate, to say the least. In their little house off Magazine Street, they read Tennessee Williams plays aloud to each other and short stories by Flannery O'Connor, James Joyce, and Shirley Jackson. Bobby tries to explain to Hanna "how [Williams] had touched a major chord with him. He tried to explain to her about seediness and decadence and how they were just the other side of things people had characterized as good and beautiful. 'I tend to think derelicts and whores and drunks are just as significant as anybody else in life," he says.

Byron has an MA as well as a BA in literature. He is in fact writing a novel about his friend Bobby and has given it the title Tom Cane, but it might just as well be titled A Love Song for Bobby Long.