By Maddy Boylan George
The disparity in wealth, class, and race is shown through Christine Wiltz’s novel Glass House. Set in the late 1980s, the novel reflects the racial tensions present in New Orleans at a time when a weakened economy and unemployment created a wider disparity between the races and an increase in criminal activity. The two main settings in the novel, the Convent Street Project and the old homes in the Garden District, are geographically very close, thus the differences and tensions between the two are heightened. By only being separated by several blocks, underlying currents of ownership and territory are felt. The levels of crime and the proximity of bordering neighbourhoods increased ill feeling in New Orleans to the point where it was no longer safe to be in certain areas. As geographer Peirce Lewis points out, “It is no news that poverty breeds crime, and it did so with terrible effect in New Orleans during the late 1980s and early 90s. For a time, New Orleans was the murder capital of the U.S. . . . . the killings were often associated with disputes over drugs or gang turf. Muggings and robberies were commonplace, and many citizens were terror-stricken, especially affluent whites who lived near the boundaries of black neighborhoods Across the city. . . .razor-wire appeared atop household walls, and throughout the city heavy padlocked chains were wrapped around the ornate iron gates that barred entrance to private dwellings” (Lewis, 128).
The dual setting of the novel reflects the key theme of fear in Glass House; by splitting the novel and the Garden District into specific territories and zones, a feeling of warfare is created. In theory all areas of a city should be public and open to all residents and visitors; however this is not the case in New Orleans. By using a well-known street as a dividing line between the two areas, Wiltz reflects the very real division of land, and the chaos that occurs when individuals try and cross the line. Fear is a recurrent theme throughout the novel and Wiltz explores the belief that fear creates fear. By operating an “us and them” division between the “haves and have-nots”, a suspicion of the other side occurs. Both sides believe that their fear is entirely justified and use their houses as fortresses to hide inside, although as the novel progresses we see that the houses on either side are not safe, regardless of the wealth of the owners. Wiltz states in an interview that, “everything that happens in this book is the consequence of fear. So if the fear didn’t exist, these acts couldn’t happen…the fear is so deep and so palpable that it is going to produce its own consequences and that is the dark side, the reality.” (James, 17)
Hysteria is exacerbated as the novel progresses and sporadic attacks occur on both sides. The characters are worked up into an extreme frenzy of accusation and panic, becoming more dangerous to themselves, and to others. The black residents need protection from the New Orleans Police Department, and the white residents believe that they need protection from the black side. In many ways the white residents are more dangerous than the violent criminals in the Project. Throughout the novel whites are figures of authority, such as Mr Untermeyer, the lawyer, or police officers like Lyle; or they are very wealthy and have a considerable amount of power within their own area. Wiltz examines what happens when wealthy and powerful people are frightened, and feel the need to defend themselves. By arming individuals who do not really need weapons, the white side becomes increasingly dangerous and panicked.
Lyle Hindermann in particular, “banker by day, crimestopper by night” (Wiltz, 51) represents the level of extreme fear that results in him becoming violent and obsessed with battling crime. Extremely racist, he embodies everything that is wrong with the New Orleans Police Department; corrupt, angry, and running on an aggressive adrenaline that causes him to become increasingly manic as the novel goes on. His wife Sandy states that Lyle had gone “mad on law and order” (55). Lyle has embarked upon a personal vendetta to keep black crime out of their area, because he experienced a neighbor being attacked, and felt affronted by the audacity of black criminals daring to enter the white neighborhood rather than keep to their own side. Lyle is able to play at God and has no interest in equality and creating a better New Orleans.
Lyle exacerbates fear in the white neighborhood by introducing guns into a domestic scene. They have no place at a dinner party but he forces them upon his old friend Thea repeatedly and causes her to be terrified in her own home. As soon as she arrives back in New Orleans from Massachusetts she is made to feel unsafe and threatened. As part of the “white side” she is immediately expected to assimilate into the group, her new friends and neighbors assume that she will also want to defend herself. Thea is the only person present at the dinner party who has actually experienced any violence at the hands of black men; despite the murder of her parents she bears no grudges and is unwilling to join Lyle’s crusade. Lyle terrifies Thea and tries to force her to use a gun to protect herself: “I think you may be in some danger,” he said to her. “That’s why I’m here-I’m afraid for you.” And indeed, Thea could see he was afraid, so afraid he was frightening….Lyle was so afraid that his fear was reaching out to her, infecting her” (180).
When Thea entertains the idea of having a burglar alarm put in, she feels ashamed and embarrassed by her African American friend’s response. “Laughed at by Burgess and his girlfriend for putting in a burglar alarm to keep them out, because it was them, all of them, the alarm was supposed to keep out; it was, after all, them against us.” (Wiltz, 102) Thea is reluctant to get an alarm system as she feels this will not help to make her feel safe: “She could imagine herself lying awake at night waiting for the alarm to go off, in bed cringing against the anticipated blast of noise….Bobby solved her dilemma. He arrived at the house and surprised her with a dog.” (Wiltz, 107) The security system of a guard dog allows Thea to feel safer, yet it also presents a less aggressive view to the outside world. Rather than resorting to expensive security systems and barbed wire, Thea is able to compromise. She is still able to feel safe in her own home, but without resorting to violence as a means of protection.
Lyle’s actions become increasingly manic as the novel continues, and he becomes determined to find out who the “Bishop of Convent Street” is. In his paranoid state he helps to arm some of his friends and neighbors, by teaching them how to shoot, and ensuring that they all buy burglar alarms. At the dinner party to celebrate Thea’s return, her neighbors introduce her to the common practice of owning a gun. “Thea looked at Mona…her eyes automatically riveting to Mona’s hands, a largo opal circled by diamonds on the right hand, a huge emerald-cut diamond flanked by sapphire ring guards on the left… Imagine those uptown ladies shooting to kill, their legs spread wide as far as their fashionable clothes would allow, in a policeman’s crouch as taught by Lyle, their jewel-bedecked hands clutching their guns.” (Wiltz, 52) The juxtaposition of such luxury contrasted with weapons makes the white side seem even more ridiculous. Guns are a very real form of protection in the Projects; in the Garden District they are seen as another fashionable accessory that everyone must own. The real, dangerous implications of owning a weapon seem less significant when the threat is reduced, as it is in the Garden District, where the level of crime and poverty in non-existent in comparison with the Projects. Lyle is effectively creating a miniature army that is trained and willing to use firearms. Fortunately the white neighborhood does not resort to violence in the climax of the novel, although the fact that they are ready and willing to use guns increases the tension between the two races.
At the end of the novel Lyle’s murder of the innocent Sherree as he pursues her boyfriend Dexter causes the population of the Project to insist on change and protection from the police. He has absolutely no respect for the Project residents. He appears unaffected by the chaos that has resulted from his murder of Sherree; he refers to the “civil rights violations crap” (181) at the town hall, a direct result of corrupt police officers. Every time that the police are mentioned in the novel they are either violent or fraudulent, and in the worst case they are a volunteer like Lyle, who is able to murder a pregnant woman and get away with it. In Glass House, guns represent an old city with old problems and no clear way of resolving them. Weapons personify fear; they allow fear to become a very real and physical threat. By encouraging weapons within the homes of the white side, the residents are actively making their own situation worse and more explosive. Wiltz uses Thea as an indication that physical violence can be prevented by remaining open-minded and allowing opposing sides to develop relationships. Her friendship with Burgess, in particular, is testimony to the novel’s underlying message of racial integration.
1. The Fischer Projects, New Orleans. The housing project used by Christine Wiltz as a basis for the fictionalised Convent Street Project.
2. The message “N.O.P.D beat me down” appeared across New Orleans as part of a protest against Law Enforcement corruption.
3. An example of a mansion in the Garden District, the physical representation of wealth in the novel.
James, Theresa. “A Conversation with Christine Wiltz.” Xavier Review 15.2 (fall 1995): 13-24
Lewis, Pierce F. New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Center for American Places, 2003.
Wiltz, Christine. Glass House. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.