Yellow Jack, A Novel, Josh Russell, W.W.Norton Publishing, 250 pp, paperback, $14.95
In 1838 a fugitive apprentice photographer lands in New Orleans and sets up shops in warehouses, bedrooms, and the streets of antebellum New Orleans. In Paris he apprentice steals a camera from Louis Daguerre and in New Orleans takes the name Claude Marchand, is wildly successful as a portraitist, as a sexual partner to both a octroon voodoo practitioner and a adolescent heir to a fortune.
Millicent, the voodoo adept, offers her sexual services to the gossip columnist of the Daily Tropicto protect Claude's secret after Daguerre exhibits his process in Paris. Vivian, a 10-year-old becomes a subject of many of Claude's portraits. For several years, Vivian and Millicent vie for Claude's attention. At age 14 Vivian catches yellow fever and her family takes her to New York. Claude and Millicent marry, adopt deformed twins and experiment with a domestic life.
Vivian's return sets the sex and drugs back into action. Vivian, resumes her monthly portrait sitting, seduces Claude who intentionally wrecks his family and marriage. Millicent, voodoo practitioner, is not to be crossed. Fame and wealth come to Claude as a portraitist of the dead slain by yellow fever but contentment eludes him. Vivan's accepts a fiancee who soon dies of the plague.
There are three versions of this tale story and for the reader, three worlds collide: Claude's first-person narration, Millicent's diary entries, and an art historian's notes for an exhibition book. The voice of Claude's opium and mercury poisoning, the voice of Millicent's jealousy and revenge, and an anonymous art historian arid voice of Claude's neglected daguerreotypes.
Yellow Jack is also a collision of the works of Tennessee Williams (dramas set in one room, not Southern regionalism), Anne Rice (the soft porn books not the vampire books), and maybe William Faulkner (his view of manipulative women) and Flannery O'Connor (her naturalism in the damnation of souls). The scenes and settings are finely etched, the behaviors are well sketched but the characters are not compelling. In the Old English language the word 'wicked' meant 'twisted' like the wick of a candle. These characters are wicked in the Old English sense. Sadly wicked and sadly unredeemed, full of sound and fury, sex and mortality, but signifying very little. Death will come to all and madness might precede it.
Of course, that precisely might be the author's point.