Once a week I grab a broom and climb on a chair to sweep away the cobwebs clinging to my sixteen-foot ceilings. I’ve seldom spotted any actual spiders yet have never seen so many cobwebs. And like my memories, I can’t keep up with them. Unbidden shadow shows from other times and places fill my mind with a gauzy light, taking over whole corners of consciousness just like the relentless spiders at work above. If anybody had predicted years ago, while I was drifting from one end of the earth to the other, that one day in my sixties I’d be living alone in the French Quarter, brushing away cobwebs and writing a memoir titled Flight Risk, I would only have had one thing to say.
Why, of course.
Like many Southerners, I relate to people by telling them stories, and often the ones I come back to are my own. We are the stories of our lives, and storytelling is how we integrate our personalities into an autonomous “I,” the past into the present. Our selective memories edit us into being with the blue pencil of passing time. Once we lose that narrative thread, we’re no longer ourselves, as Alzheimer’s teaches us. The storytelling instinct is more than entertainment or self-aggrandizement; it wells up from an atavistic place connected to self-preservation and tribal identity. The tipsy after-dinner anecdote is a distant echo of the griot or shaman or bard sitting around the fire.
As I stare up at the ceiling scanning the batwings of cobwebs, I wonder what I’ve been running from most of my life. For several years, of course, I was racing away from a backward Southern past. Flight Risk begins with the saga of how I escaped from the gothic mental hospital to which my parents committed me when I was nineteen, and then continues with a hair-raising flight a decade later from a Guatemalan jail, and several years after that, how I snuck out of China, abandoning my life there along with many of my collectivist ideals. These stories foreshadow a more recent one, how I escaped from the biblical floods in a stolen school bus three days after Katrina hit New Orleans.
Hanging in my living room under the cobwebs are newly framed family documents rescued from a musty shoebox, where they were stored for a hundred-and-fifty years. New Orleans Creoles never threw anything away, particularly papers pertaining to their origins. Perhaps my spiders are direct descendents of my family’s, French Quarter incarnations of Clotho, the spinner among the Three Fates who has woven the web of my past.
Yet occasionally I need to brush down the cobwebs so that they don’t take over my present life. Writing and publishing this book has been a way to do that. I hope that I’ve also captured the history of my times and of the places where I’ve lived, as any memoir should. In French, histoire means both an individual’s story and also our collective one: history. One thing is clear: my personal histoires would be blown away like the dust from slave bricks unless I make them part of history by getting this book into your hands.
Below is a list of titles that Nolan says have inspired his writing.
Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
T.C. Boyle, Stories, Vols. I and II
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: all short stories and novels
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Pablo Neruda, Residence on Earth and Isla Negra: A Notebook
Federico Garcia Lorca, Selected Poems
Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory
Praise for Flight Risk
“Flight Risk graces New Orleans with one of its most enduring literary portraits. There’s suspense and beauty on every page.” –Andrei Codrescu
“... vivid, entertaining, and utterly memorable, one of the most enjoyable reads that has come my way for a very long time.” –Alexander McCall Smith
“James Nolan … sure can tell a story and build it up to a climax.” –Lawrence Ferlinghetti
“A knockout! Boomer memoirists will read James Nolan and weep with envy ... He writes like magic.” –Jed Horne
“A wryly eloquent memoir of world travel and the joys, and difficulties, of returning home.” –Kirkus Reviews
Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy is available online from University Press of Mississippi or at your favorite local bookstore. Purchase your copy today.