By Gino Grieco
The novel Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana, and it really could not take place anywhere else; the city itself plays a major role in the story, often enabling a discussion of such topics as race and poverty through the mere invocation of street names and gravestones alone. Throughout the novel, the esthetics and the geography of the city of New Orleans play a central role in echoing the moods and motions of the characters that move through it. Thus, to fully understand the significance of certain scenes one must understand the layout of the city in which they take place.
The first scene where the layout of New Orleans takes center stage is when Thomas abandons his wife Catherine and attempts to take his kids to live in his father’s house in Mandeville. This early morning escape does not go as Thomas envisioned, as the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway which connects New Orleans to Mandeville collapses while Thomas and the kids are driving over it (1). The collapse of this bridge completely alters Thomas’s plans, and this alteration can be seen in the path that Thomas chooses to take from the collapsed bridge. Thomas first drives east to West End Boulevard; then he continues going east down Robert E. Lee Boulevard before going south down Carrolton Avenue and finally east down St. Charles to Magazine Street (39). This entire city-spanning trip is described in one sentence, but the amount of movement conveyed in that sentence is belied by its simple description; Thomas’s path through the city is frenzied and haphazard, showing the degree to which Thomas is improvising his plans as he goes along. His path so confuses his daughter Meredith that she believes that he is taking them to “the Jesuit High School Chapel of the North American Martyrs,” a high school chapel in the Mid-Town region of the city; instead, Thomas takes them to the Lower Garden District, which is far south of Mid-Town (39). It is clear when looking at a map that Thomas’s route through the city is far more chaotic than its short description would make it seem; however, that long trip through the city “moving through the streets like a blind lizard wriggling through tall grass” mirrors the emotional confusion and unrest the Eagen family feel as they drive away from the stable family life they once knew and towards a makeshift shelter (40). The winding of the roads and the motion through the side streets show the turmoil that the children are feeling as well as the frenzy that Thomas is experiencing.
The city of New Orleans depicted in the novel also suffers from a similar loss of history as the Eagen family; both the city and the family have once significant pieces that have fallen away and left nothing in their wake, save a vacuum of loss and melancholy. The city’s and the family’s losses coincide during the Eagan family’s subsequent trip to visit Murphy in the Hospital. To the Eagans Murphy represents a host of conflicting and hidden histories: he is an African-American man who has lived with Thomas’s family, worked for Thomas’s father, and his affair with Thomas’s mother is the unknown cause of Molly Moore Eagan’s departure. Murphy represents a number of partially forgotten pieces of history that have and will define the Eagen family. Were it not for his reappearance in that hospital, those critical pieces of the past may have been lost forever. Coincidentally, during the Eagan family’s drive to visit Murphy in the hospital, the family passes by the Fontainebleux Hotel and arrives at the Hotel Dieu Hospital (102). While these buildings were gorgeous testaments to the rich French and American histories of the city during the 1960s, the decade where the main events of the novel occur, they were both marred forever in the following decades; both buildings were altered so radically that in the 1990s, the time from which the story is told, each building is a shell of its former self. In the 1980s the Fontainebleux Hotel is converted into a storage facility and student housing for Tulane College; in 1972 the Hotel Dieu is leveled and converted into the LSU University Hospital (hotelchatter, mclno). Again the city of New Orleans acts as a sounding board, echoing the Eagan’s melancholy and loss: two pieces of New Orleans history are wiped from the landscape as the Eagan family history so nearly was. Thus, when the Eagans pass by these ruined pieces of New Orleans’ past the reader can see that their family history is similarly in shambles, a tattered quilt whose whole truth is being constantly shrouded from the people whom it most concerns.
Finally, the city of New Orleans is used in the novel to convey the sense of racial ambiguity that the Eagans experience as a mixed-race family. This sense of racial ambiguity can be seen during their time in the Magazine Street house. The Magazine Street described in the novel is a commercial street peopled with African American businesses in various forms of ruin. The street’s history is told by Evelyn, a shop owner on Magazine Street, who says that “when she was a girl, Magazine Street was like a downtown for Negroes, who couldn’t shop on Canal Street, who weren’t welcome really even out on the street unless they were there to shine shoes or open car doors or deliver white people’s messages” (141). The Magazine Street of her childhood was a distinctly African American street that had booming business as a result of the segregated economy of early 20th century New Orleans; yet, the Magazine Street that Meredith and her family live on is in a state of decline due to African Americans going “on the damn streetcar to put their money in white folks’ hands” (142). So while the street retains its largely African American population, it now is economically poor as well. As a result, the Eagan family’s mixed-race and middle class background does not blend with the identity of the street they call home. This can be seen during Meredith’s first walk alone down Magazine; she begins to walk and quickly encounters a strange man who follows her and asks her where her home is. Meredith is left shaken by the exchange saying, “I’m not sure today whether the man actually was dangerous or whether, believing that the neighborhood might be unsafe, he simply meant to help me home” (116). Meredith is made to feel like a stranger on her own street, largely because she is; she is a visibly white girl on a historically black street in the middle of a downtrodden part of New Orleans. Yet, her opinion of the street changes when Murphy comes to live with them; she says, “in Murphy’s presence, with his gaunt body towering above me, I became as accustomed to life on Magazine Street as Lowell had managed that first week” (138). It is only in Murphy’s presence that Meredith is able find comfort on Magazine Street; it is only in the presence of an African American that Meredith is able to find comfort amongst African Americans, though she is partially African American herself. A similar pattern can be seen in Thomas’s interactions with some of the homeless or drunk African Americans he treats in his clinic. He quickly offers to tend to their wounds at little to no cost; however, when his patients collapse or re-injure themselves a few blocks outside of his office his demeanor changes, “[Thomas], so kind a moment before, would tighten his jaw and drive off with them lying there” (47). While Thomas will interact with his African American patients inside of his office as a doctor, he does not carry that cordial attitude outside of his office walls. Thus, Meredith and her father seem to occupy a state of limbo where they are unsure of their racial identity; they both interact with African Americans, yet they do not feel completely comfortable around them. Magazine Street as a location emphasizes this racial ambiguity as it places both Meredith and Thomas in contact with African Americans, yet their interactions are mediated by vocation, Meredith is interacting with shop owners as a customer and Thomas is interacting with patients as a doctor.
The city of New Orleans operates as a sort of mirror for the emotional turmoil that the Eagan family experience throughout Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery. The city itself seems to share in their shrouded racial identity and in their sense of melancholy about their eroding past. The connection between the Eagan family and the landscape of New Orleans is made in the very title of the novel; the Eagans are like the headstones in a ruined cemetery, slowly wearing away in the Louisiana heat.
Brown, John Gregory. Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery. New York: Avon, 1995. Print.
LSU Health. Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.
“New Orleans’ Historical Hotel Dining Rooms: The Fontainebleau.” HotelChatter Hotel Reviews Hotel Ratings Hotel Openings RDF. Conde Nast, 12 July 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.