Books: John Dufresne – Deep in the Shade of Paradise (2002)

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Seems writing a tragi-comedy about small town eccentrics — some on the very brink of despair, all of them building powerful dreams inside their heads — comes easy for someone who spent time in Louisiana. It has for John Dufresne, the former professor at Northeast Louisiana University turned accomplished author.

The Southern goofy-gothic “Deep in the Shade of Paradise” is his second fictional pass on the infamous Fontana clan of Monroe, Louisiana. The New York Times named the first, “Louisiana Power and Light,” a Notable Book of the Year. A film version, produced by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, is in development.

A new job, and subsequent book tours, have taken him far and wide — New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C. They, Louisiana still seems to distract him in the most literary of ways. “I don’t know that I can explain why,” says Dufresne, who now lives in Dania Beach, Fla., and teaches at Florida International. “I’ve lived in lots of places and I never write about the other places.”

Dufresne was a professor at then NLU in the mid-1980s. “It’s where I learned how to be a writer,” Dufresne says. “After I got out of school, I was teaching there and it was sort of where I got my baptism. I started writing well for the first time, and I was writing about Monroe when I was doing it,” he says. “I feel like it was where I was born as a writer.”

Discussing the plots of “LP&L” and “Deep in the Shade” is like a funny recollection of William Faulkner, only he’s on some shimmering psychedelic substance. “Imagining Faulkner on peyote juice only begins to evoke the dimension and energy of the seriocomic fantasies of Dufresne at his free-wheeling, frenetic best,” wrote a Publisher’s Weekly critic.

Dufresne’s multi-layered book travels the same narrative path as his earlier Fontana book, immersing the characters in the notions of love, death, imagination and memory. The clan gathers to celebrate the marriage of Grisham Loudermilk and Ariane Thevonet at Paradise, the Fontana family’s ancestral home. The cast of characters includes a staggering assortment of adulterers, artists, country-and-western singers, hairstylists, preachers and no-count distant cousins. So begins another truth telling on the bonds of family, the accidents of romances and the almost cheerful inevitability of death.

A native of the East Coast, Dufresne says his time in the Deep South — specifically, in northeastern Louisiana — is what sparked such a whimsically dark, oftentimes hilarious imagination.

“It was so different from any place I had lived before, and I really paid attention,” he says. “The way people talked, the way things grew, the river.”

Dufresne ruminates for a moment. “It was just a really nice place. It just continues to be inspire me.”

And in the most unforgettably exuberant way.

In “Deep in the Shade,” we find Earlene Fontana — one of the first book’s heroes, if a Fontana can be called that — finally taking her 11-year-old Boudou and leaving that philandering second-husband. “Sadness,” she says at one point, “is everyone’s secret.” But only a few pages later, we find Dufresne sharing the “official state excuse” of Louisiana : “Seaux.” That’s the way this wild local yarn is spun. You could describe the book as a kind of “Midsummer Night’s Country-Fried Dream.” “If you won’t laugh yourself sick over this gloriously absurd new novel,” wrote a critic in the respected Kirkus Reviews, “you’re probably just plain unentertainable.”

A decade away hasn’t broken Dufresne’s association with Louisiana, or his connection with it. “I feel like I’m close to it, even though I’m geographically far from (Monroe),” he admits.

One reason is because Dufresne says he constantly bumps into people who know all too well its mysterious histories. “Surprisingly, a lot of people have been to Monroe — and they say: ‘You nailed it.’ I’m always surprised,” he said. “They say, I’ve been to Monroe and it’s just like that.” Situated along two roiling arteries of commerce and travel — a fast-rushing river, a faster-still interstate — the town has never wanted for accidental tourists. “Monroe’s one of those places: Lots of people have been through there,” Dufresne says. “Nobody’s from there, but a lot of people have passed through.”

With so many details that ring so very true (for instance, in the first book, he changes Enoch’s into the Strawberry Fields Cafe), there’s a commonality to his fans’ next question: “Where’d you get that family?”

People think the whole thing is real. “I say, I made that up.”

These days he’s at work making up shorter pieces of fiction. Plans for another fictional trip to Monroe are sketchy. “I don’t know yet,” Dufresne says. “Right now — it takes so long to write these things, you just want to get away from it for awhile.” That doesn’t mean he will. “Maybe,” Dufresne says, “I could write about Boudou when he’s older.”

Meantime, Dufresne will keep teaching; his new focus these days is on creative writing classes. “To be honest, if I could make enough money to not teach, I might,” he says. “But I still like it.” The fertile, glistening greenery and those wide Florida skies aren’t any hardship either. “It’s kind of hot here in the summer,” Dufresne admits, “but not any hotter than in Monroe . It just stays hotter longer.”

Even so, he says civilization encroaches more every day. Swamps are becoming subdivisions. “I miss smaller towns, but this is where the work took me.” At least, physically. In the eccentric getaways of Dufresne’s imagination, he might always have one foot squarely planted on the muddy banks of the Ouachita River.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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