Last of the Red Hot Poppas by Jason Berry
Jason Berry's Last of the Red Hot Poppas is one of those dizzying Southern novels that includes everything from cheating husbands to lying politicians to suitcases full of cash. It has all the elements of high drama with a murder in the opening pages followed by a neverending cover-up. There are mobsters, payoffs, and prayers along with the most beautiful woman ever born facing up against the most beautiful woman born before her. Throw in a zydeco band and a hero with a book collection that is taking over his house, and you find yourself with plot lines converging from all different corners into a showdown that sees the heavens open up with a riotous thunder and guns drawn in a bathroom.
Author Berry has chronicled New Orleans culture for years and found the story behind Poppas back in the 1980s while reporting on environmental issues as the state suffered under the heavy hand of toxic-waste-loving Governor Edwin Edwards. Over the years he worked on other projects, but as he wrote in the book’s introduction, “Those policies rewarded certain of his cronies and kin while sending poisonous chemicals into the communities of innocent people. Many political sins are forgivable; I have trouble with that one.” Berry’s anger has served him well, as the resulting book is both funny and sad, charming and decadent. It is all about the sins of politicians and greed of the highest and lowest scale.
And although he does not appear, the book cannot deny the retribution brought forth on Edwards, now in federal prison and learning crime does not pay, even when you are elected to four terms in the governor’s mansion.
In the beginning, Poppas is about fictional Louisiana governor Rex LaSalle who does not wake up one morning, and the mystery and machinations that follow his untimely death. Like most southern dramas, this story is all about its colorful cast of characters. Berry has brought everyone you can imagine into the narrative: the FBI who must be blocked at all costs as far as the state is concerned, a senate president under indictment, a speaker of the house who wields unheard of power, a lieutenant governor who sadly wields none at all and a host of other elected officials who answer to the hearts and minds of a few powerful men but not at all to those who elected them. The state police chief is here, even though he desperately does not want to be, and so is the coroner, a man in an impossible position. There is the grieving family -- naturally in need of a lifetime’s worth of therapy (what political family isn’t?) and more than one loyal friend, none of whom have the same motivations for helping.
Most importantly, though, there is a trio of unforgettable personalities: the First Lady, who holds it all together when it matters most, Henry Hubbell, an assistant attorney general who was leaving it all behind until Rex’s death really fucked up his life, and the Reverend Christian Fraux, a mortician who knew Hubbell’s father and Rex and is about to become critically important to the First Lady. In fact, in a story that spirals in a dozen different directions and moves back and forth between angry wives and a mobster in the State Penitentiary at Angola, Fraux is the magnet for every plot development; he is the heart and the soul of what Rex needed to accomplish and Louisiana needs to happen.
Reverend Fraux is, dare I say it, a good man. But remember this is a novel about southern politics, so don’t expect him to be a fool or a sap or the sort who trusts in God alone. He might be good, but he isn’t stupid, and that critical difference is just one of the reasons why this whole book works so well. Consider that it is only Christian Fraux who contemplates what the dead governor knows:
Fraux wondered if the newly deceased infiltrate our minds, like spies, before we lay them in the earth. People behave in cemeteries because they feel the spirits, those who have gone before, watching, assessing us. It is not God so much as the beloved dead who engender our decorum. The dead know things. What would Rex be thinking?
He almost lost me when the fingers showed up in someone’s kitchen, swear to God. Because this is Berry’s first novel after a steady string of nonfiction publications, I just wasn’t sure if he could do it. You will laugh because so much of this is crazy, but you will also recognize, sadly, how much of it is true. And in the end, when all is revealed, you will wonder who really was bad and good here; even the dead man who should be the greatest victim of all does not entirely seem that way, not really. And the fact that you thoroughly enjoyed reading Poppas might not mean as much as how uncomfortable it makes you feel about all the things we don’t know or don’t concern ourselves with when it comes to our highly touted political process. The fact that this novel is set in Louisiana and written by a New Orleans writer will just make it resonate all the more. If ever there was a place that has paid the price for political corruption it is that city and as Jason Berry knows all too well, that story is not funny at all, it’s a heartbreaker that’s never going to find its perfect ending.
Finally, I would be sadly remiss in reviewing Poppas if I did not mention its stellar design. In the sort of package that I rarely see even the biggest publisher do, Chin Music Press has incorporated a piece of original art by New Orleans native Leslie Staub as the book’s dust jacket. The fold out poster is perfectly suited to the character of Rex LaSalle, and it encases a book that showcases smaller versions of the poster on the front and back covers. From their trademark shortened book size that fits perfectly in the hand, to the elegant title page and sewn-in bookmark, everything about this book is a collector’s dream. It’s a beautiful art object that also includes a well-written and smartly-told story. Although we have all been taught to expect a lot less from publishers, booklovers could not ask for anything more from Chin Music. Add a nice drink and some jazz in the background and you have the perfect reading experience ahead of you. It beats going to the movies and being disappointed by Hollywood’s version of Louisiana politics. Let someone tell you how it is who knows; more importantly, let someone tell you who knows the value of a story well told.
Last of the Red Hot Poppas by Jason Berry
Chin Music Press 2006