A favorite novel by “a generous and lyric storyteller” (San Francisco Chronicle) known for his tragicomic voice and unforgettable characters.
Louisiana Power & Light began this way: I wanted to write about Monroe, Louisiana, a small city in the Delta, where I was then living, to try to understand what drew people to the place, what kept them there, what influence the topography and the commerce had on their speech, folkways, relationships, and so on. I was new in town, I was fascinated with it, and I paid attention to what was going on more than I might have if I had grown up in some place like it.
I loved the cadence of the speech for starters. I liked walking out of the A&P and seeing a cotton field across the street. I liked the crawfish chimneys in the drainage ditch out in front of the house. I liked the way people knew the histories of each other’s families. Every neighbor, it seemed to me, was viewed as a potential narrative. I gathered pecans and persimmons in the backyard. I watched a man from the water department beat a four-foot snake off the limb of a live oak with a baseball bat. For somebody from urban New England, all of this was astonishing. My landlady, a ninety-year-old woman who called herself Granny, fed her yard dogs out of a wheelbarrow and enlisted me to make phone calls for her to her banker and to her jailed, no-good son-in-law. My friend Dan Whatley and I used to paddle around Black Bayou Lake looking for alligators, admiring the wood ducks and herons, and watching the water moccasins that were watching the nutrias.
I wanted to write about the place, and I did so for months—in my notebook. I took copious notes about the bottom land and the idioms of speech, the markets, the flora and fauna in the brakes and the bayou and the riverside, the history, meaning the Civil War especially. I read old newspapers and looked at countless historical photographs. Then I needed people to live here because I wasn’t writing history. So I found my Billy Wayne Fontana, whose name came from a street on the south side of town, and realized immediately that his family had had a long and calamitous history in the town. They were my Snopes, you could say. So far so good. Okay, but then I needed trouble in the present. At the time on the TV news there were lots of stories about divorced fathers who’d kidnapped their children. The guileless little faces of the innocents would wind up on the sides of milk cartons. I wondered what would drive a man to so desperate an act.
What would become the novel began as a story, “The Fontana Gene,” which was the final piece in my first collection, The Way That Water Enters Stone. I worked on the story for months, and then one afternoon when I was feeling stuck, I put down my pen and pushed my chair back from the kitchen table where I wrote. I asked my narrator, a second-person plural narrator, the voice of the town (a device I stole from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”), I asked this narrator to tell me something I didn’t know about Billy Wayne. Surprise me! I said. The narrator started talking, and I picked up the pen and wrote down what he said, what became the opening sentence to the story (and subsequently to the first chapter of the novel) almost whole cloth: “When Billy Wayne Fontana’s second wife, Tami Lynne, left him for the first time, he walked into Booker T. Washington Elementary School, interrupted the fourth grade in the midst of a hygiene lesson, it being a Thursday morning and all, apologized to Miss Azzie Lee Oglesbee, the substitute teacher, fetched his older boy Duane, and vanished for a year and a half from Monroe.”
I pushed my chair back from the kitchen table once again and considered what I’d wrought: two wives and two children, submerged trouble and palpable trouble, an adventure for a year and a half, a return, a second split. I began to wonder why not take the two boys, who was that first wife, why would Tami Lynne take him back, why would he come back, what would make her leave him again? I started answering the questions, asked more questions, and in several months had a long, heavily expository story that I liked. I revised and cut. I had finished the story but realized I’d only just started writing about my dear Fontanas. And even before the story was published, I was writing about the first Fontana, Peregrine, the first marriage, and so on. Eventually, I knew every Fontana who’d ever been arrested or executed. I knew those who’d contracted leprosy and those who’d leaped to their deaths. And I knew then that I had a novel to write, and so I set out to do it. It turned out to be an eight-hundred-page draft, far too large and flabby. I was teaching myself how to write a novel, and I had yet to learn the lesson of compression and focus. I went back and cut out all of the ancestors except when their curious behaviors commented on Billy Wayne’s struggle. Then I wrote the prologue so you’d have some idea who was talking to you.
- “You’re there and here we are in Monroe, Louisiana,” the reader is told in the opening line of the novel. This “we”—narration in the first-person plural—continues throughout the book. Who is this “we,” and how does this style of narration affect the reader’s perception of the novel?
- The trials and tribulations of the Fontana clan are so often discussed in Monroe that they take on a near-mythic dimension. At the same time, the narration also reveals much of Billy Wayne Fontana’s inner life. What is the difference between public and private memory in the novel?
- As his marriage to Earlene unravels, Billy Wayne wonders whether the human condition is simply “profound ambivalence.” Is this notion borne out in the book?
- In addition to straightforward narration, Dufresne includes song lyrics, obituaries, and entries from the employee manuals of the Louisiana Power & Light Company. How do these add to your understanding of the plot and the book as a whole?
- How does the figure of Sister Helen, who quietly leaves Monroe to care for her ill father, stand in contrast to many of the novel’s other characters?
- Why does Billy Wayne take Duane and leave Monroe for over a year—and why does he come back?
- Moon Pie considers his disability a spiritual “mystery,” whereas Billy Wayne views it as part of the Fontana “curse.” Does the ending of the novel support one view or the other?
- Fox Ledbetter is a minor character, but his death is portrayed prominently in the plot. Why?
- How would your understanding of Billy Wayne be different if the novel did not include the histories of so many of his ancestors?
- Though he is often a lousy family man, the novel depicts many moments when Billy Wayne is a generous friend, such as his efforts to help George Binwaddie when he is in prison and his visit to Fox Ledbetter shortly before his death. What does the novel say about the different natures of family life and friendship?
- The narrator asks whether “the responsibility for tragedy” rests with “fate and heredity” or “a man and his fatal act of will.” Do you think it’s one or the other? How do you see fate and human responsibility interacting?
- The Southern setting is integral to the novel. Is its setting in time also important? If so, what events in American history might have an influence on the story?
- The epilogue reminds us that the Fontanas are “just like us, only more so.” Do you agree with this statement?
- The ending of Louisiana Power & Light has some elements of classical tragedy, but also contains comic moments throughout. Which is it, tragedy or comedy?
About John Dufresne
John Dufresne is the author of six novels, including No Regrets, Coyote. Among other honors, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a professor in the MFA program at Florida International University. He lives in Dania Beach, Florida.
Books by John Dufresne
A favorite novel by “a generous and lyric storyteller” (San Francisco Chronicle) known for his tragicomic voice and unforgettable characters.More
“If Raymond Chandler were reincarnated as a novelist in south Florida, he couldn’t nail it any better than John Dufresne.”—Carl HiaasenMore
"Belongs on the shelf alongside John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel."—Steve YarbroughMore