Book Review: C. W. Cannon’s “French Quarter Beautification Project”
By John Flynn-York
Wild, beautiful, bawdy, and vivid, C. W. Cannon’s new novel, French Quarter Beautification Project, is the song of one night on the streets and in the bars of New Orleans’ French Quarter, circa 1986. Waveland Rogers, known as “Buck” by all—“they call him Buck Rogers because of his repute for epic spaciness, a grand, sweeping, tremendous, but detailed spaciness”—is an aspiring composer who frequently drifts off into music-inspired reverie. He’s a server at Everybody’s Happy, a restaurant with themed tables and a costumed waitstaff, who jocularly call it “Nobody’s Here” due its lack of clientele. Buck wears a fedora and carries a whip, earning him another nickname, Louisiana Jones; his fellow servers include the buxom, randy Glory Ann, who dresses as Tinkerbell; a young guy known as Scrunge, who parades around as a lion; and Marciss, the manager, who takes his responsibilities lightly and is the occasional object of Buck’s skittering lust.
After a hectic shift dropping off wilted salads, being groped by a drunken gaggle of women well past their prime, and getting stoned in the restaurant’s musty basement, Buck and his friends head out into the night. The streets in the French Quarter are in the process of being repaved with slate—the titular beautification project—and the friends weave their way through holes and broken concrete, moving from bar to bar. The names of the establishments tell the tale: from the Bourbon Oasis to the House of Bonaparte to Rancho Pillow, their night becomes increasingly drunk, flirtatious, and strange. “Something’s wrong with everything,” thinks Augusta Morgenthau, a beautiful piano player who is pursuing Buck through the night, as she imagines a cherub fountain turn into a Cyclops with its lone eye spouting blood. “Some sub-audio vibration welling up from the invisible groundwater, a tense chord, a minor-second lodged in there like a knife somewhere.”
Sex and violence swirl around Buck, united by a soundtrack of Bach, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Brahms. Characters fondle each other and punch each other and pour each other drinks; a fight breaks out in the Bourbon Oasis; simmering tension explodes in a blowjob at the Rancho Pillow. Augusta follows Buck wherever he goes, hoping to reignite a previous relationship. Meanwhile, a meeting with Buck’s father, Jules, who sports one glass eye and some seriously anti-social opinions, leads Buck into attending a murky, late night meeting, where all the forces Cannon has set into motion collide in glorious chaos.
Though Buck is at the center of the tale, the perspective shifts frequently between the players, the narrative hopping from Buck’s music-soaked isolation to Scrunge’s sex-addled brain to Augusta’s melancholic misery, with stops in between for bartenders and waiters, drinkers and dopers, and even a mysterious first-person “I” who comments on the character’s behavior and who may or may not be Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, music, and poetry. It’s a wild jumble, a hymn to the denizens of the night, and it works beautifully, evoking New Orleans’ famously freewheeling spirt and imbuing it with a mythic grandeur. But Cannon does not shy away from the darkness, either, and as the night progresses, the Bacchanalian revelries give way to disturbing, blood-splattered tableaux. This ecstasy has its costs, the novel suggests—but maybe beauty resides in the torn-up streets, not the tourist-friendly slate that will soon pave them.
John Flynn-York writes fiction, essays, book reviews, and the occasional poem. He is the fiction editor of The Coachella Review.