The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans, Part 2: The Last Beaucoeur by David Lummis takes place on a single day, Friday August 26, 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina is taking aim at the Louisiana coast and denizens of New Orleans are preparing to evacuate the city.
Lummis' previous book, The Coffee Shop Chronicles Part 1 covers, with the exception of a three chapter flashback, a ten day period from August 16 to August 26, 2005. The novel opens with ten years sober Sammy B. Singleton sitting in a coffee shop with a double cappuccino and writing in his journal. What Sammy begins as a self-indulgent and somewhat haphazard effort to structure his life turns into a journey into history and subsequently a descent into himself.
In contrast with the somewhat straightforward narrative of the first novel, Chapter One of The Coffee Shop Chronicles Part 2: The Last Beaucoeur opens with a surrealistic stream of consciousness style blending memory and imagination, past/present/future in a melange reminiscent of Benjy's chapter in The Sound and the Fury. It is early morning, August, 26, 2005. Nothing is what it seems, and the storm that is brewing in the Gulf is a metaphor for the turmoil that is fomenting inside the mind of B. Sammy Singleton.
B. Sammy Singleton, a writer and resident of New Orleans since 1998, has been involved, since early in Part 1 of The Coffee Shop Chronicles, in a fruitless quest to track down his friend, the elusive and enigmatic Charles "Catfish" Beaucoeur, heir to the Beaucoeur sugarcane fortune. Catfish has gone missing and is now officially declared to be a fugitive from justice.
Where is Catfish Beaucoeur and even more important who is he?
Sammy, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is torn between his desperate need to find (and save) his friend and the necessity of evacuating his apartment at River House in the Marigny district along with his long time friends, proprietor Georgia Moore, who is dying of cancer, his fellow tenant Naomi, and her toddler son Dylan.
Sammy's task is further complicated by his just having discovered a box of books belonging to Catfish that vividly, graphically, and horribly illustrate the monstrous institution of slavery. Along with the books, Sammy has found a poem, a bitter kind of slave narrative in quatrains ironically entitled "Old Glory," written by the teenaged Catfish in the voice of a lynched slave. Sammy, like Catfish, suddenly finds himself catapulted into the dark and bloodstained past of slave-holding forbears and his life is forever changed. He discovers that he, too, must bear responsibility for what Catfish referred to as "the American Holocaust"
"What's past is prologue..." says Antonio in Shakepeare's The Tempest . No more appropriate words could be found to describe The Last Beaucoeur. In Part 1 of The Coffee Shop Chronicles, readers were introduced to B. Sammy Singleton; however, in Part 2 readers probe into the dark and disturbing past of Charles "Catfish" Beaucouer --a person whom Sammy loves but realizes that he really does not know.
Sammy has only hours to put together the pieces of a complex and deeply disturbing puzzle. With the help of Catfish's childhood friend, Lee Ann Rush, owner of Rush Antiques in the French Quarter, Sammy slowly and painfully cobbles together the troubled and turbulent story of Charles Beaucouer. Lee Ann takes Sammy back to the 1970's, particularly to the summer of 1976 when Lee Ann and Catfish spent their days and shared their secrets at the decaying Beaucoeur plantation mansion 33 miles outside of town, and pausing in the spring of 1977 after Catfish's second suicide and his subsequent confinement in a Paris hospital. In the course of a few hours, Sammy learns more than he could have ever imagined about the young Catfish, his legacy, and the demons that plague him..
Sammy discovers that Catfish has spent most of his life in a form of attonement---expiation as it were---for the sins of his forebears: slaveholders who made their fortune on the backs of those less fortunate as well as for his own imagined sins: his failure to be there for his closest friend Lee Ann and his own sexuality. The passage from Luke, "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required much will be required," seems an apt description of the life of Catfish Beaucouer.
A recurring leitmotif in the novel is the poem "Old Glory." The poem in its entirety appears at the conclusion of Part 1, but is only alluded to in Part 2. However, the poem like the storm is also a metaphor---this time for the life of Catfish Beaucoeur. The poem is inscribed to Lee Ann, and Lee Ann Rush tells of finding it, as she had found others, in a notebook of poems written by Catfish in his youth, a collection of slave narratives in quatrains, first person accounts of the horrors of slavery
Over the course of Part 2: The Last Beaucoeur, Sammy Singleton realizes that he has never been there for anyone, not even himself. His agony is exacerbated by the fact that his only brother Noah was killed in a car wreck at the age of sixteen. Sammy, who was, fourteen, was on a Junior Missionary trip at the time of his brother's death.
Can Sammy be there for Catfish whom he has already abandoned at least once? That, as Hamlet might say, is the question.
The storm grows closer, the tension rises, the desperation intensifies. The Last Beaucoeur is a page turner and the reader will not be able to put it down.
The novel concludes with a kind of Pietà tableau, but is it finished? I definitely think not.
----by Penne J. Laubenthal
Further reading on Swampland.