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The Sound of Building Coffins Hardcover – March 1, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
This ambitious, vivid novel by writer, New Orleans resident and jazz record shop owner Maistros starts out in the Big Easy of 1891. Noonday Morningstar, an African-American Baptist preacher, is summoned to pray over a dying one-year-old boy whose supposed illness is actually demonic possession. Aided by Dr. Jack, an abortionist and witch doctor; Beauregard Church, a veteran prison guard; and Buddy Bolden, a cornet player specializing in the new jazz sound, Noonday performs a voodoo exorcism. Fifteen years later, Noonday is dead, and his youngest son, the diminutive and gifted Typhus, has developed an odd love for Lily, a girl he knows only through a photograph. Following Typhus and those connected to the exorcism through New Orleans vibrant underbelly, Maistros develops a rich, dangerous world of musicians, mob justice and magic. Stylistic flourishes, lush descriptions (especially of the voodoo practices), and dialect-heavy narration sometimes jar the storys flow, but the plots insistent pace builds to a satisfying though familiar storm-buffeted climax. (Feb.)
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Louis Maistros has written a lyrical, complex, and brave novel that takes enormous risks and pulls them all off. He is a writer to watch and keep reading, a writer to cherish. --Peter Straub
One has to write with considerable authenticity to pull off a story steeped in magic and swamp water that examines race and class, death and rebirth, Haitian voodoo, and the beginnings of jazz in 1891 New Orleans. Maistros's gritty debut novel follows the interconnected lives of the Morningstar siblings--all lovingly named by their father after disease-- as they wrestle with a powerful demon, con outsiders, kill and die, die and are reborn. The plot is complex and magical, grounded in the history of the city, without being overly sentimental. There is a comfort with death as a part of life in this work that reveals deep feeling for the city and its past. Of course, every novel about New Orleans must have a good hurricane. Like the one in Zora Neale Hurston's classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, this hurricane destroys the city while making hope possible. Highly recommended for all fiction collections, especially where there is an interest in jazz. --Library Journal
The Society of North American Magic Realists welcomes its newest, most dazzling member, Louis Maistros. His debut novel is a thing of wonder, unlike anything in our literature. It startles. It stuns. It stupefies. No novel since Confederacy of Dunces has done such justice to New Orleans. If Franz Kafka had been able to write like Peter Straub, this might have been the result. --Donald Harrington, Winner of the Robert Penn Warren Award and the Oxford-American Lifetime Achievement Award
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I can't think of scenes in a novel which will live in my poor brain for longer than many of the scenes in The Sound of Building Coffins. I believe that only Cormac McCarthy affects me so much with his nihilistic and somber tales that fascinate and repel; it's the mix of emotions that drive the reader on. As with No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses, I found myself constantly sorting my feelings as I watched the whole house burn down around the characters. Who is good and who is evil and do these terms even apply when life is constrained by chance events that lead to inevitable tragedy?
A Voodoo priestess calls up a spell and that event takes whole families and another generation to doom. Or is death and murder really tragedy? Perhaps it is the way toward rebirth and salvation. I don't know but I do know that these questions will haunt me for a long time.
Louis Maistros took me for an unexpected ride. He is unique. There is no question about it. A few times I had to slow down so not to lose my stomach and a few times I had to pause, close my eyes and take things in.
I finished the ride about a month ago and I am still taking it in. I am still thinking of the characters and their stories...still thinking of the "shoe doves" in life...still finding myself closing my eyes as I think of New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th Century...always to feel what it just might have been like...and I am still thinking of the simple things and small victories one day at a time.
Thanks Louis Maistros. I certainly enjoyed the ride.
The novel opens in 1891, a period near the end of the Creole-age with its wonderful music, a combination of elements of West African work songs, slave spirituals, minstrel shows, and rural blues expression with European brass band instruments. A recurrent theme throughout this novel is death and rebirth. Now, in its death throes, this music gives birth to her natural heir - jazz and Ragtime. Music plays such an important role here - from the seductive sound of Buddy Bolden's cornet, (blasting out with the new jazz sound), to the strains of lapping river water, to the buzz of the locals, whispering their deepest secrets, to the roaring wind and waves of an enormous hurricane.
The exotic and colorful cast of characters is large and lavish. Nine year-old Typhus Morningstar is the first person we meet. We find the young boy fulfilling his calling, tenderly rebirthing aborted fetuses in the waters of the Mississippi River under the light of the half-moon. He is almost always watched over by Mr. Marcus Nobody Special, who fishes nightly, looking for a particularly special catfish which he has yet to catch. All other fish are thrown back into the water, allowed to live and swim on.
Typhus' father is an African American Baptist minister, Rev. Noonday Morningstar, who named his children for diseases: Malaria, Cholera, Diphtheria, Dropsy and Typhus. Morningstar, a widower for many years, doesn't care if folks mock his choice in names. "Morningstar saw life as a trial and death as a reward, a bridge to paradise - and he saw God's mysterious afflictions of the body as holy paths to that salvation." The Reverend, his children and Mr. Marcus all play an important role in the storyline.
While Typhus performs his work by the river, across town a baby, born of Sicilian immigrants, is possessed by a terrible demon. The babe's father has just been lynched by a crowd of vigilantes. Doctors, priests and other well meaning do-gooders flee the humble home when faced with the demonic child. However, Rev. Morningstar is not one to be daunted. He and seven cohorts go to dispel the demon. Some of them never leave the house alive. However, dead or alive, these people will forever be effected by what happens that night.
One of the characters who also plays a major role in "The Sound of Building Coffins," is Dropsy Morningstar. This innocent child-man's wide brown eyes continually examine the "journeys of ordinary threads through ordinary fabric, (be it shirt, rug or sock), for long minutes." It is as if he is searching "for hints of code, probing imagined or hidden meanings" within the warp and weft of woven cloth - "as if the fabric of an old shirt might also contain answers to the fabric of the universe itself." Dropsy's penchant for rug pondering is so symbolic of this tale. All the story's many threads, plots and personages, ultimately come together to form one glorious tapestry.
Maistros has written a lyrical, complex work of historical and magical fiction. I must admit, at first I put the novel down after reading two chapters. I was probably craving a lighter read, perhaps a police procedural. However, the next day I returned to "The Sound of Building Coffins" because I just couldn't get the characters and the beginning of the storyline out of my thoughts. I am so glad I gave the book another chance and did not relegate it to my TBR pile. This is a 5 star novel, sheer poetry at times, and a real keeper.
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