After his first trip to New Orleans in 2003, Alex Jennings knew he would have to find a way to live here eventually. He waited until the summer of 2006, and we all know how much you had to love New Orleans to come here in that recuperative post-Katrina period.
Jennings has lived all over the world – his parents worked for the State Department, and he is certainly well traveled. He was born in Wiesbaden, Germany; his mother had made a long and perilous flight there rather than give birth in apartheid South Africa. Jennings grew up in Gaborone, Botswana, and he lived in Tunisia and Surinam, Washington state and Maryland before New Orleans, with its rich history and culture, captured his heart.
“I wrote the first story I ever sold in New Orleans,” he said. Surely that was an omen of good luck. So was a dream he once had, in which a spirit voice commanded him to move to New Orleans. Now his first novel, “The Ballad of Perilous Graves,” his love letter to his adopted home, arrives with a flourish of advance reviews that are glowing to say the least.
This ballad is a true picaresque, an adventure story, a fantasy, which all takes place in NOLA, a city within the city, where streetcars have become sky trolleys. “I just loved imagining streetcars in the air,” Jennings said.
Street art comes alive, there are talking animals and robots and, as in the real New Orleans, music is everywhere. Trouble is, someone has kidnapped the best songs from Professor Longhair’s piano, and a young man named Perilous Graves, his sister Brendy, and their friend Peaches must recapture those songs and restore the soul of the city.
It’s an epic quest, a fantasy on a grand scale. It’s a big book in every way—length, vision, and most of all, heart.
“The Ballad of Perilous Graves” is dedicated to Jennings’ father. “When my brother and I were little, he used to read to us from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and of course it’s problematic in that a lot of the evil imagery in those books is associated with blackness. He would say, ‘I wish there were a series where the darkest, blackest one is the hero.’ And in creating this book, that became my way to give back,” Jennings said.
This book will surely find a welcoming audience among fans of the Black Panther film, as well as the novels of NK Jemisin and Octavia Butler.
The seed for this book grew out of post-Katrina stories Jennings heard about children who were moving back here alone, without their parents. And the first literary antecedent he thought of? Pippi Longstocking.
“She lived by herself and took care of herself,” Jennings said, and she was a perfect model for the character of Peaches in his book. Having found his character, he immersed himself in the history of culture and music here.
“Originally, I thought of this as music,” Jennings said. He’s curated an amazing Spotify playlist to go with the book too. But a course on New Orleans music taught by Connie Atkinson on at UNO, Jennings’ alma mater, provided context for the music.
And then, after he finished the book, he sat down and wrote original songs for it, though music lovers will certainly recognize their roots. Jennings does quote directly from St. James Infirmary and Dr. John’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” in the book.
“As I learned more about the city and started integrating myself, it wasn’t just the present I fell in love with,” Jennings said. “I loved the history, figures like Lafcadio Hearn,” who is a character in the book.
“One unusual element of storytelling about New Orleans is the way people discuss how the city has changed,” Jennings said. “But reading Lafcadio Hearn showed me how close his descriptions are to the present day.”
Jennings worked on this novel for 10 years. “When I started I was not the writer who could produce this book. But it turned out to be the great work of my life, a tribute to my city and to my family.” In short, a labor of love.
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM.