"The Sound of Building Coffins"
(Reviewed by Jana Perskie APR 9, 2009)
"Through pain you teach God right from wrong. It is never the other way around. Never has been and never will be. It’s the reason we are here on this earth, little sister. We are educating God. With a pain that he could never feel.”
Louis Maistros has written a whale of a tale with The Sound of Building Coffins. This is a macabre masterpiece of magical realism, filled with the author's obvious love for New Orleans, where he makes his home in the 8th Ward neighborhood. His deep feelings for the Mighty Mississippi, whose mouth is just a bit downstream of the Mardi Gras City, are also evident.
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.
- Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Sound of Building Coffins at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Louis Maistros
- Louis Maistros blog
- Chi Reviews on The Big Punch
- FeoAmante's review of The Big Punch
- Times-Picayune review of The Sound of Building Coffins
- Curled Up review of The Sound of Building Coffins
- Fyre Fly Books review of The Sound of Building Coffins
- The Advertiser review of The Sound of Building Coffins
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About the Author:
Louis Maistros is a longtime resident of the New Orleans 8th Ward neighborhood. A former forklift operator and self-taught writer with no formal training, his work has appeared in publications such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Baltimore City Paper. Along with his wife Elly, he currently owns and operates Louie's Juke Joint , a combination jazz record shop and Vodou botanica.