Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, May 2, 2022

Monday, May 2, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The Ballad of Perilous Graves

Redhook: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Redhook: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Redhook: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Redhook: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

The Ballad of Perilous Graves

by Alex Jennings

Alex Jennings offers readers a fantastical, musical imagining of New Orleans in The Ballad of Perilous Graves, as three children are tasked with saving the city they love after the nine songs that keep it thriving are stolen by an evil power.

In this dreamlike place--not truly New Orleans, but Nola--live Perilous "Perry" Graves; his sister, Brendy; and Peaches, his best friend (and adolescent crush), who lives across the street in an abandoned house she's filled with animals. These three are tasked by a haint named Doctor Professor (a nod to the notable New Orleans blues artist Professor Longhair) to save the city by rescuing nine threatened songs that form the heartbeat of Nola.

This quest morphs into a twisted, dark adventure, complete with dips into alternate realities, embodied songs that walk and talk, and a terrifying villain who will stop at nothing to squash the heart of the city in which he is entrapped.

The premise of The Ballad of Perilous Graves is as simple and as complicated as that, offering space for Jennings to build out a world that is at once deeply rooted in New Orleans history ("this is a jazz city through and through!") and entirely steeped in imagination. Residents drop everything and dance on the hoods of their cars whenever Doctor Professor appears with his magical piano and starts playing in the streets; graffiti walk out of murals and into the air, followed by packs of Paintbodies (something akin to groupies) seeking out the contact high these painted figures offer; zombie-like characters drive cabs over to the Dead Side of Town and no one blinks an eye. Perhaps most importantly, songs in this world are living, breathing things, as capable of being murdered at point-blank range as they are of inspiring a crowded dance hall with their musical abilities. "That's the thing about music," explains Perry's grandfather. "It can destroy as much as it creates. It's wild and powerful, dig?"

There's a moment near the middle of The Ballad of Perilous Graves when a person is trying to retrieve something from a locked car during a flooding storm. In struggling to get into the car, he recalls a quote about walking in the rain, "Something about how when sudden showers blow up, people run, take cover, trying to avoid getting wet, got wet anyhow. But if one were to resolve from the beginning to just be soaked, perplexity would evaporate." While it's a small moment in the novel's plot arc, this line proves key to unlocking the mastery across the pages of Jennings's debut novel. The more a reader can let go of expectations and just fall into the strangeness of the story of Perry and his friends, the less perplexing it becomes, as the incredible, rich, vivid world of magical and musical Nola emerges.

The intersection and overlap of that magic and music sing across every page of The Ballad of Perilous Graves, both literally and figuratively, as Perry, Brendy and Peaches come to understand the magic of music and the music of magic. "Thass magic baby, pure and simple," crows the ghost of Doctor Professor to the three. "Jazz, baby... Potentest sorcery in all of Nola." As they come to appreciate both their own powers and those that run through the city on their quest to save the nine songs that make Nola what it is, they encounter music at every turn: in jazz clubs and dance halls, in the streets and at home, in their memories and the future city they want to not just rescue, but build. Jennings draws on the rich musical traditions of New Orleans throughout, with references to artists and songs pivotal to the city's music history.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves is in no way a children's story, though the three unlikely protectors in this story are children, tasked with saving their city when the adults around them are unable or uninterested in doing so. The themes underlying Jennings's incredible worldbuilding are ones of darkness and deceit, desperation and determination. The disconnect between the ages of the protagonists and the trials they must face, however, feels intentional throughout. It's an invitation to readers to see the world of possibilities as a child might, and to acknowledge the complexities inherent within those possibilities. That's the magic of the music in Jennings's stunning novel. It's an ode to a city, to an art form, to an age--all wrapped up in a surreal work of speculative fiction that introduces readers to an entirely new and complex society while simultaneously inviting a re-introduction to the world as we (think we) know it. --Kerry McHugh

Redhook, $28, hardcover, 464p., 9780759557192, June 21, 2022

Redhook: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Alex Jennings: Magic, Music and Imagination

(photo: Nkechi Chibueze)

Alex Jennings is an author, teacher and poet. He was born in Germany, raised in Botswana, Tunisia, Surinam and the United States, and now calls New Orleans home. The city features heavily in his debut novel, The Ballad of Perilous Graves (Redhook, June 21, 2022), in which nine songs that uphold the existence of a city called Nola have been stolen and must be rescued. Listen to Jennings's playlist for the book here.

When someone asks you what The Ballad of Perilous Graves is about, how do you answer?

I tell them it's a Blaxploitation Pippi Longstocking adventure, where nine songs have escaped from Professor Longhair's Magic Piano, and my Pippi character and her friends have to capture the songs and return them before the city they live in ceases to exist. That's the very short version. 

With so much musical history in New Orleans, how did you settle on those nine to be the missing songs?

There are certain New Orleans standards that you know are super important. If you go to a traditional jazz show, you can expect that you're going to hear "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," maybe something like "Iko Iko." So choosing the songs was a process of melding that tradition, which is so important to New Orleans culture, with the remixes and recontextualizations of those songs for later generations. That's why I've got Trombone Shorty in there, and Alan Toussaint, and now Li'l Wayne. I could never leave Li'l Wayne off the list. Not only do the themes in his music relate to life in New Orleans, especially the tougher parts of town, but the form that his creativity takes is so explosive and so reinventive of what's gone before that I feel like his approach to music is very symbolic of what goes on in the cultural and creative life in the city. 

I think you could say the same about your writing; it feels so interwoven with the music and culture and history of New Orleans.

If you are writing about New Orleans and the spirit of New Orleans, it's impossible to do that without taking the culture and the music into account--that's such an important part of the city's life. I think my first ever introduction to New Orleans was through music, before I knew that there was any such place or anything about it. I heard "Iko Iko," and it captured my spirit. I didn't even know what it was. I told my mom how much I loved the song, and she told me there's a lot to that song that people don't really know. She took me to a bookshop in the mall and they gave me a book about the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, and I was just amazed! Not only do you have this wonderful, haunting music, you have a whole culture surrounding it.

New Orleans figured heavily into the expansion of what I understood reality to be; it colonized my imagination at a very young age, even though I didn't come here until I was in my 20s. I'm trying not to be too romantic about this, but it feels like destiny to be in New Orleans now. There are some things in your life where, when you look back on them, you see that you were always on a trajectory to that thing, and moving here was definitely one of those. Living all over when I was younger made it feel as if I would never have a place to call home. I've been living in New Orleans for 16 years, by far the longest that I have lived anywhere; it took seven years, but it's become a home to me.

In addition to the musicality of this novel, it's also incredibly visually descriptive.

I'm a pretty visual writer. I like to seize on images and compose them in a way that lends them symbolic importance and a certain energy and dynamism. And this project did begin its life as a comic book, so a lot of elements come from that.

Even when I sit and try to decide where a scene is going to go, or how to execute it, it's the vision that I see first. I'll often hear things as well, but I'd say the primary sense when I'm writing is visual: the way colors stack up, the way figures are positioned in scenes, blocking where people are in space. I was taught that that's just one of the most important parts of writing fiction, to know where everybody is and to be able to look and tell.

What's your writing process like, to keep track of so many threads in this novel?

I think one of the things that helped was to create a sort of emotional and spiritual anchor for the story.

I was talking to a friend about articles I had been reading after I moved to town, about children who had to come back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina without their parents. We were thinking about characters in literature who were separated from their parents, and Pippi Longstocking came up. I started to think, what if you took Pippi Longstocking and put her in a completely different context? Like, what if she was a girl from Central City living in a blighted property with all her animals? What would she and her adventures be like? That was always something that I could come back to when I felt like I lost my way.

I also have kind of a quasi-mystical approach to writing. When I start, I will sit down and interview the characters to ask them what really happened. The one character in The Ballad of Perilous Graves I never sat down to interview was Stagger Lee, though, because that would be too scary. 

Stagger Lee is definitely scary. Yakumo, too, though there's a nuance to their evil.

Yakumo is a real person. Lafcadio Hearn was a regionalist writer who came to New Orleans in the 19th century and stayed for 10 years, writing a lot about New Orleans culture and foodways. After he left, he wound up in Japan where he had a family and later died. One of the things that I was very cognizant of was not wanting the portrayal of this character as a villain to take away from Lafcadio Hearn's legacy, because to folks in New Orleans he is very important, almost a patron. I think that helped me include this edge of sadness and frustration to his character, trapped in this city that he loves that is also a mockery of New Orleans. Stagger Lee was also a real person; he's become such a huge culture figure over the years, I just couldn't stay away from it.

In the author's note, you credit your father for unintentionally inspiring you to write the "Blackest fantasy [you] could concoct." How did that come about?

When I was young, my father used to read Tolkien to me and my little brother, and I remember very vividly the "black is evil" imagery in there. One night my dad put the book down and said, "I wish there was a fantasy where everybody is Black and the darkest, blackest one is the hero." That stayed with me, especially as I began to enter the field of speculative fiction. One thing I definitely wanted to do was to align it with the experience and the concern of Blackness. A lot of the elemental issues in here are very tied to Blackness, and it just so happens that those are also universal issues that everybody can understand. --Kerry McHugh

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