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

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

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 long. I just love every page. I love every word. It’s funny, whimsical, nostalgic, heartfelt, silly … It’s like a silly sweet Southern girl. You can’t get enough. Nancy Lemann does not hold back when it comes to nostalgia – a theme that is intense for her. All of her books have to do with yearning – sometimes the yearning is vague (there’s a great line in The Fiery Pantheon – her third book: “She had a nostalgia for a life she had never lived.”) – sometimes the yearning is specific and is about one specific person … but that yearning is what drives her on as an artist, obviously. Nostalgia. Sometimes you can wallow in nostalgia. Lemann does. Louise, the lead of Lives of the Saints has been away from her home, New Orleans, for 4 years while she went to college in the north. But now she is back. Having gone away, her appreciation of her home town is even more acute. She loves it so much that it almost hurts her – you can tell in how Lemann writes about New Orleans. But there’s a deeper level to this nostalgia thing. It’s almost like Lemann writes from the point of view that life is short, so so so short – even as we speak, right now, it’s slipping away … and if you are conscious of that, then how on earth do you bear it? Not the pain of it … but the beauty of it? How can you live like that? 100% aware of the beauty of life? Can anyone manage it? Louise is in love with Claude Collier, a kind of dissipated goofball she has known for years. They are friends. Their romance doesn’t begin until halfway through the book – but you can tell (from the first excerpt) her regard for him, despite all of his problems. The way Lemann writes about Claude Collier – he is just one of those indelible fictional characters. I remember him. He is a “type” – he LIVES.

The following excerpt comes early on, after the debached bacchanalian wedding that opens the book. It is the next morning. Everyone in the town appears to have to recover from the drinking binge the night before. Claude Collier comes over to Louise’s apartment for breakfast.

They have known one another for years, since they were kids. But now they are adults (albeit young adults) – and Louise is the type of person who notices everything. Nothing skips past her.

I just think Lemann is SUCH a funny writer. I love writers who can make me cry – but writers who can make me laugh capture my heart forever. And watch how Lemann does both here … we get the goofiness of Claude Collier, and it’s so so specific – but then we also get the yearning, the nostalgia, of Louise, her regard for him, her love for him, will never fulfill her … because life is like that. Especially if you are the kind of person who notices everything. Life becomes acutely clear, almost unbearable.

Wonderful stuff. Oh, and for me – the section below about “dark magic” is the most profound of the book. It seriously helped me put my life in Chicago into perspective – when everything had changed, upheaval abounded – and I had met M., who was distinctly insane in many ways – and yet somehow we were drawn to each other. Repeatedly. For many many years. What was that? How could it be? M. was not an appropriate mate for me…. like, we wouldn’t become respectable or anything like that, he wouldn’t be my boyfriend … but at that time, in that place, he had the world’s dark magic for me. Dark magic is not necessarily bad or malevolent. In my particular case, it was the opposite. It was healing. M. was a lunatic, a bartender, a brilliant comedian, a mess in many ways – how could hanging out with him be healing? Well, it was … and since I had read Lives of the Saints, I thought: It’s that world’s dark magic Lemann was talking about. M. has the world’s dark magic.

EXCERPT FROM Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann

The day after the wedding Claude came to my apartment. I was fixing breakfast – Carnation Instant Breakfast. He had on khaki pants several sizes too large and an overstarched blue-and-white striped shirt, the kind that looks like it came from one’s father, or brothers in the dim, more endearing past. But his gentle fading blue eyes had the look of someone who is not afraid – and with his posture straighter than an arrow, Claude had that slightly stern bearing he got from his father.

He politely watched me while I read the newspaper, which he’d brought. He did not speak. He had an air of observant logic, just watching me read.

“My eyes are killing me,” I said. “I read like a fiend.”

“Well, read like an angel,” he said mildly, not taking his eyes off my face. “You’re too interested in glamour,” he said suddenly. “You socialize too much. You go out too much. You stay out too late. You drink too much. You should just be a simple, regular person. You should go to bed at eleven every night. You should just come home from work and cook, do the dishes, and just be a regular person. You shouldn’t eat Carnation Instant Breakfast.”

I received these stunning recommendations in silence. Then I said, “You’re the one who needs that advice.”

“No, no, I’m just a regular, normal guy. Who leads a regular life.”

“Oh, God.”

“It’s youth – it’s just youth,” he said, looking at me, mild and unintelligible.

“What is?”

“Your behavior.”

“What behavior?”

“You’re so young!” he raved. “You’re so innocent,” he said. “How have you really been? I haven’t really known, these past few years, when you were away at school. I heard you had a breakdown,” he added in a kind voice, solicitous but cheerful, as though it interested him especially. “Breakdowns?” he said. “Tell me about your breakdowns. That’s what we’re all about down here,” he said. “Breakdowns.”

He had dazzling blue eyes, which looked at me with that benevolence, or seemed to look down through many years, as though he had the wisdom of the old.

Breakdowns. That was Claude’s theme.

“No, no, I haven’t had a breakdown,” I said. “But what about you?” I said. “I thought I heard you had to go to the hospital. I heard you stopped drinking there, a year ago. I mean, speaking of breakdowns. And what’s this about you moving to New York?” I said.

“How’s that?”

“You know, when Mr. Legendre said. When he said he heard you were planning to move to New York.”

“Planning to move to New York. Not quite, dear. My brother needs me here. I have to look after him. I have to look after you. I have to look after things here. Maybe some time,” Claude said.

“What was going on between you and Mary Grace at the wedding?” I said.

“How’s that?”

“Before they left, when she said those things when she was drunk. You know.”

But it was useless to think that he would tell me her secrets if they were not meant for me.

“What is it about Mary Grace?” I said. “I mean, what is she really, really like?”

“What is she really, really like?” Claude said. “Well, let me see now. What is she really, really like. That’s a hard one.” He shook his head. He gestured with his hand, as though trying to find the word. “Mary Grace –” He stopped again. “She was the wildest thing that existed,” he concluded, and in the way he shook his head and gestured with his hand, I could tell that he had loved her once.


Claude reached into his pocket absently and handed me a pack of gum. It was a hot day. I got up and started scrambling eggs. He was standing a few feet away from me, tall and stark, looking at me through narrowed eyes, with a kind of stern, inscrutable affection.

“Are you by any chance scrambling eggs?”

“Yes. What of it?”

“You mean, you’re just standing there scrambling eggs?”

“Yes. What is it, some kind of miracle?”

“What are you going to do next?” he asked as though it were intriguing.

“Take them out and put them on a plate. Do you want some?”

“Oh, no – but I mean, you, just scrambling eggs in the middle of the day, and here we are at your apartment, and everything is just normal, right?”

“Of course. It’s normal. What do you mean?”

“I mean, you, just standing at the stove scrambling eggs, compared to what you will be doing two minutes from now, and what you feel like and what does it all mean.”

He was shaking his head, bemused, at my scrambling-eggs capacity. Then he got up to go out on the gallery – except he tripped over a chair and tore his khaki pants from the ankle to the knee. Then his glass of gin and tonic slipped out of his hand and fell over the balcony and down to the bricks.

I just stood there at the stove, watching his catastrophes. These were Claude’s normal catastrophes. Claude was accident-prone. He always had catastrophes. He also gave new meaning to the word absent-minded. Whenever he left on trips on airplanes, he would go off with other people’s house keys and car keys in his pocket, causing huge Comedies of Error.


He was twenty-seven years old and currently was not working and was living off income from the invention, from betting at the racetrack, and from some investments he inherited, and everyone was always asking him what he was doing, to which he would answer, smiling brilliantly, “Oh, not too much,” and start chewing a straw or tearing napkins into shreds.


I don’t respect idleness in a man, of course. I don’t just look up to someone who can get by without working. I respect a man who has accomplishments, and must therefore have worked hard to get them. A man should have a profession.

Claude was just Going Through A Phase. He just had not Found Himself yet.

St. Augustine had spent his youth in vice and dissipation, and look how he turned out.

But the idler’s lot is a sad one, and this I do not deny.


There’s a famous line in a story where there is a married couple and it is observed about them that she had none of the world’s dark magic for him, but he couldn’t live without her for six consecutive hours. My feeling for Claude was like the reverse: I could live without his presence – as I had just done, when I was away at college – for a whole duration of years between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two. But he had the world’s dark magic.

I don’t expect him to be near, I mean. He can probably live without me for six consecutive hours. It would not matter to me if I only saw him three times in five years – and it would still be with the understanding that if there are people like that in the world, then there is honor, for here was a fellow whom you could depend on to be kind as a steadfast, incorruptible rule.


I only went to the racetrack with Claude once. We drove by the Quarter on Esplanade, everything green and curious in its tropical way, lush in the humidity, with steam rising up from the pavement in mists because of the heat. It did not seem like a normal American district; it never does, passing the Fifth African Baptist Church with the Gospel Soul Children practicing, the Crescent City Plantation Steak House with neon and white tile and green curtains in the private rooms, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club,, Majestic Mortuary with neon lights and jazz, Seafood City where the employees came to work in tuxedos, and then the racetrack bar, Comeaux’s, Grits Comeaux, Prop., who had a dead mummy hanging from the ceiling.

We only saw three races, and it was so boring and decadent that I fell asleep from psychological pressure. It rained on and off. Claude won eighty dollars on a three-dollar bet in the Exacta. He stood in the stands in his trench coat, chewing a pencil, squinting, making notes on the forms. But he looked like such an old-fashioned character, in his trench coat – tall and dark-haired – like a husband.

I tried to ask him about what he was doing. But he would not talk about himself. He was always reluctant to talk about himself. He did not have one ounce of vanity – the worst of the vices, worse than any of his, in my opinion.

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