A Density of Souls
by Christopher Rice
Published by Talk Miramax Books
274 pages, 2000
Read an excerpt of The Snow Garden
I grew up in the New Orleans of the 1970s and 80s. In those days, as always, New Orleans was a place where the sweet scent of magnolia blossoms was as overpowering as the contradictions. Where the springtime festivities of Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival echoed long into the mild winters. Where status wasn't as much about money as it was about enduring residency. Where food and music could be as intoxicating as liquor. Where certain social clubs didn't (and, amazingly, still don't) admit Blacks or Jews. Where words and writers congregated and were admired. And where a hazy vision of future prosperity always seemed to loom just ahead.
It was in this New Orleans where I endured grade school and high school -- and where I wrote a novel called Total Eclipse, about a young man a lot like me who learns how to move beyond his past and get a close-up look at his own hazy vision of the future.
Christopher Rice grew up in a different New Orleans. On the surface, it probably seemed a lot like my own. But beneath, where alcohol-laden blood pulsed in the city's veins, it was very different. While I was born in the Crescent City, Rice was a transplant from San Francisco. He told me recently that when he thinks of New Orleans, he thinks of "pain and alcohol. When I was 10 and we moved there," he said, "it was a complete and total culture shock because we were coming from San Francisco, where I had been in this very bohemian grammar school where we called all our lesbian teachers by their first names. And then suddenly I'm in Uptown New Orleans, where all the boys have the same haircut, Polo shirts and Polo shorts."
Ah yes, to quote a song from Gigi, I remember it well.
"New Orleans for me, speaking more generally, is a city in my opinion where the children don't leave," Rice said. "Where there are generations and generations of the same families still living in New Orleans, close together in this small town that's pretending to be a big city. And lengthy family histories that have built up because of that proximity and intrigue and pettiness and parents who act like children. I think the [high school] parents that I knew -- a lot of them sort of regarded the [school] traditions like Homecoming and all of that with more reverence than their own children did. The whole city to me I find kind of adolescent. And the degree to which it sort of turns from its problems with alcohol to parties, drinking, Mardi Gras, all that. To me, it's very childish. And harmful."
Harmful to what? "To the city itself. Like I think it's the most un-self-aware city in America because it's so drunk on its own charm and appeal and history. And now it's sort of trying to market its own history -- the most important thing, it seems, to many people who live there is the history of the city, because the future looks like shit."
This is the milieu of Rice's debut novel A Density of Souls. Writing, if you'll pardon the expression, courses through Rice's veins. His mother is Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire and many other novels, his father is the poet and painter Stan Rice.
A Density of Souls is an extraordinary novel. It's a searing portrait of a city on the edge -- or perhaps beyond the edge. And it's the emotional story of a young man coming to terms and coming to grips with who he is, what he wants and how he must face his future in a city that seems determined to trash its own.
I read the book over a three-day period several months ago and its images have proven to be indelible. Rice's writing style is stark, beautiful. It's tough, hard-edged, sharpened so that it nearly glints with rage, sorrow and, finally, hope. In many ways, it's a book very much like someone you love -- there are many reasons to look closer, yet also reasons to turn away. Rice has crafted an often chilling tale that walks this thin line brilliantly, challenging the reader and delivering a tasty reward.
I wanted to meet with Rice because our boyhoods were shockingly similar. Our school experiences, many of our life experiences, our views and our points-of-view -- there were too many parallels to simply let a conversation go un-had. On top of that, we both dealt with our experiences in our early 20s by writing about them -- that venerable New Orleans tradition -- to find truth and clarity where so many deceptions and so much haze had obscured them.
Tony Buchsbaum: I was reading something the other day, an interview in Interview magazine. A friend of yours said something about New Orleans. Whenever she leaves New Orleans she misses it terribly, but when she's back she wants to be away. Is that how you feel about it?
Christopher Rice: That's exactly how I feel. Although, I don't know, I think after spending a couple of years away at school -- one at Brown for a semester and then in L.A. -- I started to miss it more. Now that I've been home for a long stretch of time, I'm ready to leave. And I don't think it will ever leave me. I don't think it's possible for me to sever my ties to New Orleans completely. But I definitely feel it closing in on me. I've exhausted all the social options, everything. And it seems smaller and smaller every day.
Have you seen this book called Manning? [Manning is purportedly a double autobiography written by Archie Manning, longtime quarterback of the New Orleans Saints and his son, Peyton, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. Interestingly, Peyton attended the same school in New Orleans that Rice and I did.] Have you read it?
I haven't either. But it occurred to me that the title is interesting if it refers to football as a way to describe what being a man is. Because when I was growing up, playing football was definitely how you described what being a man was. Especially in high school. It'll be interesting to see if Manning really is about that -- and how it compares to A Density of Souls.
It's been surreal, because when I was going through the South and going through Mississippi especially, we were on the same book tour schedule. He was everywhere I was, a day, three days later. And so sometimes the books would be right next to each other.
Two very different pictures of growing up in New Orleans. I read something recently that said the city is going to be underwater in about 10 years. The whole city. Which made me think of the flood in A Density of Souls.
[Laughs] Right. Exactly. The hurricane in the book is very punishing on the city.
It seemed very punishing. A lot comes down on the city. It's very concentrated.
Yeah, the punishing aspect of that, the blowing up of the gay bar, stems from the fact that I thought I wasted a lot of years at [New Orleans'] gay bars. And when I first walked in at the age of 18 and saw the gay community congregate for the first time, it seemed like those bars would promise everything and would end up delivering nothing. So there was the element of wanting to be free of that.
You didn't really connect to it?
You know, I made some close friends immediately after high school, but I reached a point where I was going out there every weekend when I was in town and seeing the same people on the same barstools doing the same drugs. And I think what really drew the line was when a lot of friends I had who were total strung-out cokeheads started to become infected with HIV. After all the knowledge that was out there about transmission, this cyclical lifestyle that they were leading was spinning out of control and I just took a step back. It sounds trite but that's what I keep saying: It promised everything but delivered nothing. So there is that frustration.
Yet at the same time there's another element there. I was at a dinner in New Orleans and this woman was speaking and she said New Orleans and Atlanta are very similar especially in regard to the gay community because they're very cosmopolitan centers in the middle of predominantly rural states. So you have the Klan and loonies and psychos just 30 minutes outside the city. And when you're inside the city you can convince yourself very quickly that you're safe. But I remember one night this psycho walked into a drag queen bar in the French Quarter with a grenade and a gun, ready to pull the pin. It was on the news and some friends and I were going out at the same time. And I remember being in [another bar] after the standoff and the guy was arrested and I just thought: What if one of these people came out of the swamp?
Did being "the son of Anne" effect you in some way?
Oh, yeah, definitely. It meant that throughout New Orleans -- and especially now that the book has gotten a lot of press and publicity -- I could walk into a room and have 40 people know who I was before I knew them. And that was... I don't want to say frightening, but, you know, I got used to it very early, very young, to the degree where it kind of like numbs you, I think. Like in social situations I was completely detached. I had my core group of friends -- but I don't want to get out there and mingle because so many people I meet just want to talk to me about being Anne Rice's son. A bullshit shield goes up. I think as a result a lot of potentially good friendships and contacts were lost.
It's amazing how clear and interesting your writing is. Did you just spring up with that style, or is it something you tried to develop?
I think my style sprung up naturally sparse and not florid, like my mother's. It's blunt and brutal.
Is that the voice of A Density of Souls, or your voice?
Yeah. I think it's the voice of A Density of Souls. And it's the voice of me kind of looking back on that pain and sense of isolation I felt -- and examining it close-up, almost for therapeutic purposes, putting it in perspective. My dad says the book has a governing madness to it and I agree with that, but it also has a unifying rhythm... I don't know I would say that it flows along from one spot to the next, as much as the pain comes in spikes. Spike, forward. Spike, forward. I don't know what was worse, New Orleans or the pain.
Did writing it help?
Oh, yeah, it did. Well, in a way, it helped and it hurt because I think... Because it was under the cover of fiction and, you know, it was kind of a safety zone, I let out more anger and rage, really, and pain than I realized I had built up from high school that I just hadn't addressed. I felt sort of once high school was over, it was done, it was over. You can move on. You have freedom now. College. All that. And when I finished the manuscript and really had to step back from it and begin editing it, it was very painful to see what I had laid out there, to know that that was in me. Shocking.
What happens now? Are you writing another book?
Yes. I'm writing another one which is set on a northeastern college campus and will not deal with these images. I think I've said all that I can say about New Orleans for the time being. I think I've said all I can about being gay for the time being. And this second novel that I'm working on is much more about the power that you have to alter your identity once you are away from school and away from home and away from your parents.
I read somewhere that after your father read A Density of Souls, he said that it would change your life.
Yes, he did.
Do you know why he said that?
He thought it was very good. He thought it was, in his opinion, way more advanced than anything he or my mother had been writing at my age. Even if, say, it didn't get picked up by a publisher, it was a promise of something down the road that he thought had a lot of potential. | October 2000
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, NJ, and he is Creative Director/Copy for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Philadelphia.