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General Fiction Review     

 

Restoration
by John Ed Bradley
Doubleday, 2003
Hardcover, $24.05 (336 pages)
ISBN 0-385-50261-3
 
 
 

Novelist John Ed Bradley once again hits the nail on the head with his latest saga of the New Orleans underworld he knows so well. As with “My Juliet,” Bradley’s work resonates with the shadowy atmosphere of the French Quarter, Magazine Street, and the Garden District, playing the various mysterious elements of the Crescent City against each other. He carries the reader into the world of art and art restoration.

In the beginning, thirty-two-year-old Jack Charbonnet, a native of the town, has quit his job as a columnist for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the T-P to locals, and moves into a great old cottage behind a rambling dark plantation home tucked away in a corner of the French Quarter. It is outfitted with a weeping ghost. What else could you want to start a story about New Orleans? 

With the house comes the owner, a mysterious old man in a wheelchair named Lowenstein whose character is revealed little by little throughout the 300 pages of Bradley’s novel. 

Almost immediately, through the real estate agent who rents him the patio apartment, Jack meets the beautiful young art restoration expert, Rhys Goudeau, and soon conversation turns to the town’s most interesting and elusive artist of the past century, Levette Asmore, who at the age of twenty-three in 1941 threw himself from the Huey P. Long Bridge into the murky waters of the Mississippi River. 

It is not without heavy symbolism that Asmore was a pure but tarnished soul who painted beautiful women with whom he was having affairs. As it turns out, he is a beautiful young man whose parents died in a flood in north Louisiana when he was only a child. He lived a short while with an uncle, then was taken to an orphanage in New Orleans. He was still a boy when he began to paint and became a prodigy whose art rose in popularity, especially after his untimely death. 

Set against this background are the people of the art world: Rhys the restorer and the rich Tommy Smallwood who counts the black figures in early Southern paintings before he purchases them. As Rhys herself says: “Do you think he wants only pretty pictures to hang on his walls? Tommy Smallwood is a cannibal, a flesh-eater. When he sees something he wants he has a violent biological response to it. His heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket, and his brain releases neurotransmitters called serotonin and norephinephrine. They induce in him a sexual response, and he begins to feel good all over. He can’t control himself -- he’s a slave to desire.” 

With such emotional creatures pitted against each other in Restoration, it is no wonder that the story pulls the reader along like the undercurrent of the Mississippi River. Why did Levette kill himself? Both Jack Charbonnet and the reader asks the same question. And as it should be in any good story, Jack soon falls for Rhys, who is as mysterious as the artist or the other elusive characters. 

Bradley peppers his story with New Orleans history. He has the subject of a painting wear a William Spratling necklace and tells us about Spratling having been William Faulkner’s roommate in the French Quarter before he went to Mexico and became a silver artist in Taxco. He takes us into several of the finest restaurants in the city. And when Jack and Rhys eat at Mother’s you can almost taste the flavorful red beans and rice and gravy-soaked poboy. 

While this story is certainly flawed, it is a strong and compelling read. The plot is intricately put together and flows with a natural rhythm. I may fit it together like a set of building blocks. The novelist doesn’t. He builds his story through intricate scenes that do not always flow with a lyric quality which might make it more poetic. However, the scenes do work and work well, although the ending -- which I will not divulge -- is a bit too pat and satisfying for the major characters. As I always, Bradley’s female lead is lovely, engaging and tantalizing.

 

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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