The Sound of Building Coffins
In 1891 New Orleans, a black preacher named Noonday Morningstar, with the help of his son Typhus, saves the infant child of a Sicilian immigrant from the clutches of a demonic demon. Or do they? Noonday dies in the heroic attempt, and the lives of his son, as well as his other improbably named children—Diphtheria, Malaria, and Dropsy—are forever changed. The “saved” baby becomes an evil teenager under the alias Jimmy Jam Jump, a young con man with a murderous streak.
The novel follows the lives of the Morningstar children, notably Typhus, a midget who brings aborted fetuses to the river to be “rebirthed” as catfish; his sister Diphtheria, a high-class whore; and their brother Dropsy, a kindly but slow-witted boy. The novel spans the time from 1891 to 1906, and a host of colorful characters reel through it, including an abortionist, a noseless gravedigger, a prison guard, whores, jazz musicians, grifters, ghosts, bogeymen, and voodoo queens. Each of them seems to be affected in various ways by the evil in Jimmy, although their individual stories do not always come together in a satisfying manner.
Maistros’s language is lyrical and rhythmic, an appropriate vehicle for this early jazz-age story, and he paints some lovely and mysterious images of a bygone New Orleans. He also has a great ear for the dialects of the time and place, bringing authenticity to the dialogue.
Still, the novel reads like a Greek tragedy, with death and mayhem everywhere in abundance. Regretfully, there is so much going on in this ambitious novel that, by the time it concludes, the reader is uncertain as to what it was all about.