Nolan, James. “Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy”, (Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography Series), University of Mississippi Press, 2017.
Escaping the Pull of New Orleans
Having been raised in New Orleans, I identified with a great deal of James Nolan’s “Flight Risk”. New Orleans is a town that it is near impossible to run away from; the city becomes part of anyone who has experienced a good bit of time there. James Nolan’s family goes back five generations in New Orleans and he gives us a look at his hometown alone with the counterculture of his generation. His story begins when he escaped from a gothic mental hospital. He had been committed there by his parents in 1968 when he considered himself a teen poet. Out of that breakout, he ends up in jail in Guatemala. Later on we read that he also escaped from China where he ran away from his career as a teacher. He also managed to escape Hurricane Katrina by dodging the flooding in a stolen school bus three days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Nolan says that his luck in his flight could be traced back to those of his French ancestors who fled to New Orleans in the mid-nineteenth century. They set up a tobacco business in the French Quarter, and lived as they did in the “old country” alive in the Seventh Ward of the city with quite a menagerie of the extended family in which he grew up. He shares his early attraction to and fascination with extremist politics. Nolan was especially close to his grandfather, a freewheeling and eccentric gentleman from the Gilded Age. In his search for freedom. Nolan’s goes to San Francisco of the sixties and seventies at the height of the “flower power” and he lived as an expatriate life in Spain as the country transitioned into democracy. Like so many New Orleanians, he goes back and lives in the French Quarter and had to deal with the aftermath of Katrina and the city’s resurrection. (This is where he and I differ in that I have no plans to go back).
Nolan’s stories are commentaries about such topics as race in New Orleans, the Disneyfication of the French Quarter, digital technology and globalization, the challenges of caring for aging parents, Creole funeral traditions, how to make a gumbo, and what it really means to belong.
The book is a compilation of Nolan’s essays that together form his memoir. We are very aware of the honesty with which he wrote this and we also aware that his writing is “nostalgic, gut-wrenching, poetic, uncomfortable, surreal, scary, appetite- inducing, tearful”. James Nolan sees life as nowhere and the homogenization of every city causes it to slowly lose its soul to a mass conformity.
I know that it is difficult to remember life before Twitter and Instagram, and cell phone texting and sexting, bit it is so good to be reminded of it again. For those of us who were college students during the war in Vietnam and who lost someone to AIDS, this book will get your memories flowing again. There was a time when book clubs consisted of people who think and not those who buy a book because the cover matches the décor at home and who have souvenirs of dead family, you are in the right place and here is a book to act as your guide and you waltz down memory lane.