Review: Quench the Smoldering Wick
A young New Orleans novelist Gordon Peter Wilson has published a work Quench the Smoldering Wick that impresses me by its satirical humor and literary fluency. One might have expected a novel of this quality to be put out by a first-rate commercial press, but this may not be possible in today’s Politically Correct publishing industry. Wilson takes liberties with all kinds of sacred cows, a nouveaux riche Jewish business tycoon with an inappropriately young mistress, an unhinged black revolutionary, upscale WASPs (with ancestors, not relatives) who patronize fashionable leftist causes, and a young female do-gooder from a Western Pennsylvania rustbelt town. Although some of these types might pop up in a novel by Philip Roth or Tom Wolfe, it may be harder for a young novelist nowadays to get away with such humor. Even if he succeeded in finding a suitable publisher, instead of having to self-publish, he would likely never be invited to speak at a “book event,” hosted by authorized liberals and conservatives.
Without giving too much of the plot way, which unfold entirely in New Orleans, I may be permitted to repeat some of the details offered by advertisements. The protagonist of sorts is Shale Himmel (quondam Himmelfarb), a food industry tycoon and the owner of the swanky Watercress Hotel in downtown New Orleans. Jupiter Mingo (this seems to be an assumed name) is a black dishwasher at the Watercress and as things turn out, a violent adversary of what he perceives as “systematic” white racism. His girlfriend through most of the novel is Gretchen Sobieski, a naïve comely social justice warrior from a Polish Catholic background and an impoverished Northern town. Mansuel Williams Blackshear is the vain young patrician, who helps himself to Shale’s mistress, although both of them land up being shot at the Watercress, when Jupiter decides to take out his racial resentment at the end of the novel.
Wilson depicts all of his main characters as playing social roles that betray their inauthentic selves. Shale is a self-conscious Ostjude (Eastern European Jew), who no matter how hard he works to rise socially, always imagines himself to be snubbed by the long established German Jewish elite of New Orleans. It was for me impossible to read Wilson’s perceptive characterization of Shale without thinking of the neoconservative “policy advisors” I’ve known. The resemblance is truly remarkable. Gretchen is basically what she is, a Polish Catholic girl from Western Pennsylvania who is assuming the role of social justice warrior. She is delighted to make love to a black revolutionary, as integral to her assumed identity, but only at the end does she realize how psychopathic her lover is. Jupiter is also assuming a role, which lifts him out of his otherwise dismal existence as a very dark black living on the edge of society. Like Shale, his boss at the Watercress, he is full of resentment against those higher up in his own group, in his case, lighter-skinned blacks with French Creole blood. These blacks have not only snubbed him but represent the intermediate command at the hotel where he is destined to perform lowly menial tasks. Although elements of this novel remind one of Wolfe’s Bonfire of Vanities, the conclusion is much darker. The book ends not in racial reconciliation, but in a blood bath that the reader sees coming by the last third of this novel.
One wonders whether, as Wilson explains at the beginning, this is only “a work of fiction.” The author may be offering a not very subtle prediction of the direction in which both his native city and the country are moving.
Paul Gottfried is the president of the H.L. Mencken Club, a prolific author and social critic, and emeritus professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College