The Books: “Lives of the Saints” (Nancy Lemann)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann

I almost get nervous when I come to a book on my shelf that I love beyond measure. I call them my “heart’s books”. There are only a couple – and each time they come up next on the shelf, I feel a bit of anxiety as to how to talk about it, how to even BEGIN. I experienced that with Possession, with Cat’s Eye – with the Emily books … and I definitely feel it now. Nancy Lemann has written four novels, and I have read them all – more times than I can count. Lives of the Saints is her first novel. I remember where I bought it – at a little bookshop over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Fran … it’s such a light-hearted comedic novel – at times it makes me laugh out loud … and the time when I bought it was one of the darkest in my whole life. It’s a slim novel, not even 150 pages long – and I read it, and it was one of those moments – when a book helps you leap-frog to the next stage in your life. I was gloomy, depressed, and hopeless. I was 23 years old. I moved to Chicago, and almost immediately began to have a wacky time of it. Beating men off with a stick, taking none of it seriously, meeting M. – a man whom I referred to, in my journal, as “Claude Collier” – the main love interest of Lives of the Saints, a character I absolutely ADORE. He’s one of those fictional characters I would LOVE to meet. Lemann’s language is very singular, very much her own – she writes in an old-school way, capitalizing certain words – like Society, or Chaos, or Gaffe … And the cumulative effect of such a style is so so funny. You HEAR the voice of the narrator, Louise – a young disenchanted kind of aimless paralegal, who spends her nights cavorting with Claude Collier. It’s a funny funny book. I made Mitchell read it, when he came to live in Chicago. I remember lying in bed (Mitchell and I shared a single bed – A SINGLE BED – for 8 months. What??) – and Mitchell was sitting on the couch, reading Lives of the Saints. First of all, I remember him bursting into laughter at certain points, and then reading the passage out to me. I loved re-living the book through him. And then, halfway through the book, something happens – something horrible. Nothing has prepared you for it. The tone of the book is light and lunatic, and suddenly: life intervenes in the worst way. I still don’t think Mitchell has forgiven me for not warning him. I remember he called me at work, totally upset – and berated me. “How could you not tell me??” The book is wonderful. It’s poetic – Lemann’s writing has a stamp all her own … my only complaint about her is that she doesn’t write enough. But I love love love the books she has done so far. She uses repetition – she comes back to the same themes and words over and over again, so the books almost become incantatory. I love how she does that.

Lives of the Saints takes place in New Orleans – a town that Lemann obviously loves dearly. She is damn near rhapsodic about New Orleans. Louise Brown grew up in New Orleans, and went to college at Brown. She had an odd experience being among the Yankees – “not one of whom ever apologized to me about the war”. After college – where she studied English literature – she returns home. She has no prospects. She gets a job in a local law firm (and the staff of lawyers are seriously some of the funniest characters I have ever encountered in literature) – she hates her job – and at a big society wedding, she runs into an old friend – Claude Collier. She obviously loves him. They begin to hang out. Claude Collier is a wreck. A dissipated wreck. But with an old-world type of elegance. He wears seersucker suits. He drinks too much. He is jolly. Everyone loves him. He is always getting into scrapes. He has an INSANE family (his mother is also one of the funniest characters I have ever met – harassed, convinced that her life is worse than everyone else’s). Louise and Claude have a romance, yes. But Claude is in trouble. He has gotten involved with winos and race-track habitues. Louise watches as everything goes to shit. Nothing really happens – this is not a book about its plot. It’s a book about mood, and atmosphere. Late nights in jazz clubs, and the funny conversations you have with your friends. This book works on me like a charm. It’s “magic”.

When I write, I have to be careful to not imitate her. Her style has had such an impact on me that I find myself appropriating stuff without really realizing it. I have to go back and edit, sometimes … slashing out the “Lemann-speak”. But it’s become a part of who I am.

I’m going to do a couple of excerpts, because I just can’t help myself. I am going to start with the opening of the book, a section I know almost by heart.

I love this woman’s writing. Check her out, if you haven’t already. She’s totally a delight.

This is how the book starts.

EXCERPT FROM Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann

All in all, Henry Laines’ wedding was one of the worst events in my experience, tragic in society. Everyone that I have ever known was there, plus a party of out-of-towners whose broad Memphis and Charleston accents shocked me, although we were the same, Americans far from the hub of the universe along the East Coast.

Everyone had breakdowns at this wedding. Including the bride and groom. Especially the bride and groom. Crowded parties like at the Stewarts’ often can be known to Bring On Breakdowns. Especially if the Stewarts are the hosts.

I went into this wedding armed with a philosophical acquiescence I had learned from the poets, but I found in society their principles did not hold weight. Everyone was too drunk. Everyone was unglued.

It used to mean so much that the poets were a friend to man in other woe than ours, afar from the sphere of our sorrow – but my quotations are confused. I don’t know them anymore. Henry Laines would remember them. He knew all about it. Henry Laines was much admired by some, a kind of local hero. By profession, he was a starving artist, and by temperament, a bachelor. By that I mean that his icebox always held just one item at a time, something rancid, like an old head of broccoli residing in the freezer, so that he could try to save it.

I couldn’t talk to him anymore. I could only listen. Then he would look at me as though I had just fallen out of a tree. All those people, all those catastrophes, not to mention breakdowns, at the wedding, made me lose the words of the poets. It was a Very Long Party.

The orchestra was playing old-time jazz, scratchy and remote, with people screaming in the background, and screams of laughter. The party of out-of-towners from Charleston was collected in a corner of the dance floor, which otherwise was not crowded, as most people were out in the garden and in other anterooms inside, in separate, tired, exhausted groups.

Brows were being mopped with white handkerchiefs, among white summer suits and seersucker suits, against a profusion of green in the Stewarts’ garden. Everything was green and sumptuous and still, with green-and-white striped tents set up and the principals wearing white tie and tails. There were deck chairs set up in the garden, with people reeling around among them. It was stiflingly hot. Elderly gentlemen in advanced stages of disrepair were sitting in a row of deck chairs at the far side of the garden, all in their white summer suits.

The wedding was at three, and the reception started shortly after, but showed no signs of abating, though it was almost ten.

Henry Laines was screaming my name at the top of his lungs on the dance floor, not unlike the way he used to scream for Mary Grace, his bride, in the garden of his house at night. No one thought it was unusual that Henry Laines should be screaming my name instead of hers at his wedding reception on the dance floor, because everyone was too drunk to care. That is what it is like at parties where everyone is too drunk.

It was like slow motion when Henry Laines began to scream my name; a certain hush came over the dance floor, and a few people, particularly Claude Collier, gave Henry Laines a funny, somewhat pitying look from across the room. I noticed that. Claude Collier stood with his hands in his pockets, calmly contemplating the scene. His brow was furrowed, and he was squinting slightly. He was chewing a straw.

The rest of the dance floor was populated by the party of out-of-towners from Charleston, who threw some inquiring looks in Henry’s direction and then lapsed back into their oblivion.

“I think Henry is falling apart,” Claude Collier said to me.

Henry Laines had already had two breakdowns since the ceremony.

“It’s been a long day. He’s tired. He’s falling apart,” said Claude mildly in a calm tone, slightly deadpan. Then Claude Collier looked at me intently. Claude Collier made the world seem kind.

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7 Responses to The Books: “Lives of the Saints” (Nancy Lemann)

  1. mitchell says:

    your damn right..i have yet to forgive u…my vast history of sobbing openly in Chicago eateries began at the old Coffe Chicago on Broadway and Aldine as i read that fechachta book!!! I looked crazy..laughing out loud and then crying so violently that i had to get up and leave! Thanks Nancy!!! and Sheila!!!

  2. red says:

    hahahaha I remember you saying to me once, “So I was crying at Demon Dogs …” hahahaha

    I just loved introducing you to that book – I knew you would get it. Nothing better than a FUNNY book, you know? It’s also touching and poetic, but my God, it’s also hilarious!

  3. mitchell says:

    i had a full-blown melt down at Steaks and Shakes once.

  4. red says:


    David had to lead me weeping out of Stinky Sullivan’s just last month.

  5. The Books: “Lives of the Saints” – excerpt 2 (Nancy Lemann)

    Next book in my Daily Book Excerpt – on my adult fiction shelves: Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann I can’t just do one excerpt of this book (first one here) – even though it’s not even 150 pages…

  6. The Books: “The Ritz Of The Bayou – The New Orleans Adventures Of A Young Novelist Covering The Trials Of The Governor Of Louisiana, with digressions on smoldering nightclubs, jazz-crazed bars, and other aspects of life in the tropic zone” (Nancy Lemann)

    Next book in my Daily Book Excerpt – on my adult fiction shelves: The Ritz Of The Bayou – The New Orleans Adventures Of A Young Novelist Covering The Trials Of The Governor Of Louisiana, with digressions on smoldering nightclubs,…

  7. Virginia Stapleton says:

    If you love Nancy Lemann you HAVE to read the two novels written by Sheila Bosworth!

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