by Josh Russell
Published by W.W. Norton and Company
250 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley
Artistic geniuses go through hell. Take Ernest Hemingway for instance. The last days of his life were filled with electroshock treatments. He committed suicide. Take Sylvia Plath as well. She, too, went through electroshock for her manic-depressive behavior. She, too, committed suicide. Take Jim Morrison. Drugs, sex and booze were major facets of his life during his fame. He died alone in a Paris bathtub. Take Van Gogh. He had a collection of ills and shot himself in a field. These people have it rough. Yellow Jack's Claude Marchand is no different.
Who is Claude Marchand and what kind of art did he do? He was an apprentice to Louis Daguerre, who, quite accidentally, stumbles into photography when he hides a broken thermometer in a cabinet and finds that the mercury fumes brings out images etched by the sun in metal plates. After a falling out with Daguerre, Marchand finds his way to New Orleans, where he becomes the first daguerrotypist in America.
Russell writes with the keenest eye to detail and fleshes out characters so well, it was almost impossible for me to believe that Claude Marchand had not been a living, breathing person. A historical figure for Russell to embellish in fiction. I checked on the Internet for Marchand. Scoured books at the library about daguerrotypists. But the Marchand character was, in fact, created in Russell's rich imagination.
In New Orleans, Marchand finds himself in a bawdy world of sex, drugs, death and corruption. He becomes tangled in a slew of relationships, one with an octoroon mistress and one with an erotically precocious daughter of a prominent New Orleans family. The daughter becomes his wife.
The city falls prey every summer to yellow fever (yellow jack) and Marchand is the only man who can make portraits of the dead and dying. His art is forever being tested by his relationships, his city, and the death that falls over the city like a dark cloak. Eventually, mercury drives him mad, but his work and his life remain as vibrant as it did in the vibrancy of New Orleans.
Russell, an Illinois native, and an instructor at the University of Florida, writes sharply, details crisp, with as much fun with plotting as New Orleans is ribald. The city, complete with Russell's rich and believeable cast, is in itself a character. Like New York City was to Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Russell's New Orleans pours off the page, running down the delta of our minds. Images are rich and thick. The smells are pungent. Yellow Jack holds you while transporting you at the same time.
In middle-August, a month after I'd come to the city, the cannons were still firing, the barrels of tar still burning, and those brave enough to walk the streets still wore masks, not props from an independence celebration but futile attempts at fighting the fever that'd rattled my chest and come forth as coughs of inky syrup.
Yellow Jack is told through three different voices -- the first person narrative of Marchand, the diary excerpts of Millicent his mistress, and an unnamed art historian -- and the book blends and develops magically like three paints creating a new color. Within the diary excerpts of Millicent, Russell writes:
Yesterday Claude brought me flowers and begged me to forgive him... My hands shook and I dropped the flowers. They were daisies, and I wanted them, but my pride would not let me stoop to gather them, so I left the flowers on the floor. I know that I made this pain but it hurts me so deeply I want to blame someone else for it.
He writes characters of both sexes equally well, making the book unequally great.
Imaginative and delightful, Russell has written an intoxicating first novel. His words paint wondrous pictures. His protagonist Claude Marchand, as mad as he is a genius, comes alive within Russell's world and we come alive while reading it. | October 1999
Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye.