A collection of raucous stories that offer a panoramic view of New Orleans from the author of the “stunning and audacious” (NPR) debut novel We Cast a Shadow.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin has an uncanny ability to reveal the hidden corners of a place we thought we knew. These perspectival, character-driven stories center on the margins and are deeply rooted in New Orleanian culture.
In “Beg Borrow Steal,” a boy relishes time spent helping his father find work after just coming home from prison; in “Ghetto University,” a couple struggling financially turns to crime after hitting rock bottom; in “Before I Let You Go,” a woman who’s been in NOLA for generations fights to keep her home; in “Fast Hands, Fast Feet,” an Army vet and a runaway teen find companionship while sleeping under a bridge; in “Mercury Forges,” a flash fiction piece among several in the collection, a group of men hurriedly make their way to a home where an elderly gentleman lives, trying to reach him before the water from Hurricane Katrina does; and in the title story, a young man works the street corners of the French Quarter, trying to achieve a freedom not meant for him.
These stories are intimate invitations to hear, witness, and imagine lives at once regional but largely universal, and undeniably New Orleanian.
I reviewed Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel We Cast A Shadow, so I was interested in reading his follow-up collection of short stories, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You. I remember really enjoying We Cast a Shadow, and there were a great deal of feelings and thoughts about the meanings and messages in this novel. This collection of short stories has a different message than We Cast A Shadow. The story lengths vary from standard short story length to stories less than a page long, but each of them have a great deal to say.
The backdrop of this collection is New Orleans. When I think about this city, there are many things that make it unique. The way that tourists treat it like Las Vegas (coming in to party and not much else), and how there is a definitive split in New Orleans. Post-Katrina New Orleans will never be the same as Pre-Katrina New Orleans. Most of these stories show a city that is years later still trying to recover and rebuild. This city as a setting for this collection really brings another dimension to the decisions and motivations of the characters. Many of the characters are showing the same drive to recover and rebuild, even when the means to do so no longer exist. The struggle of people of color and people without money to impact their lives and make better for themselves is a universal story, and does not need a particular setting, but having the backdrop of New Orleans give these characters another layer, as if it does not need to be told that most of these characters have lived through losing absolutely everything.
In the final story of the collection, “Before I Let Go”, the main character, Gailya, is trying to save her house in a neighborhood that is going through gentrification due to the abandonment of a great deal of the neighborhood post-Katrina. She states that the changing of her neighborhood is not just a white and black issue but a money and power issue as well. I can see the money and power theme in all of these stories, how those without are trying to get enough to get some of the power back in their lives that they lost when they lost everything in the hurricane. Some of the characters rob, some of them sell their bodies, some of them just hustle harder to try to save a little to get ahead, but the main thing all of them are doing is trying to get back some of the power that they lost when the storms came.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s story collection using New Orleans as a backdrop has great impact. All of these characters are desperate in a way that you feel for them and want them to turn the corner, find their luck or their power and get back to where they deserve to be. You cannot read through these stories without hoping for a good outcome for all of them, but you can also respect that Ruffin writes the stories in a way that lets you know that not everyone is successful because that is the way the true world works.
I received this as an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.