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Dredging the Secrets of the Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s no better backdrop than a weepy sky under which to reminisce about New Orleans. Its fraying-at-the-hem elegance, its ambient melancholy--as redolent as cut flowers just giving up the ghost.

Even after a few days back from his book tour, New Orleans is still in Jervey Tervalon’s nose, his head; it’s permeated his bones. Now he’s left to shake it off--a lingering spell more wicked than any Hurricane cocktail hangover.

“I have friends who are particularly taken with the perverse pleasures of New Orleans . . .,” he says, settling into a plate of cayenne-perfumed New Orleans prawns sure to take the chill out of this drizzly Pasadena afternoon. “But I think that almost everybody who writes about New Orleans can’t get away from writing about seeing things decay. New Orleans is just a wild place, and it’s wide open. Things can happen. Horrific things.”

And they do in “Dead Above Ground” (Pocket Books), Tervalon’s second novel--based on the murder of a cousin--which in just three weeks in the stores has garnered a flurry of critical notice and a two-week seat on the L.A. Times’ bestseller list.

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This long-estranged native son of New Orleans has written a story that is much like that chambered city itself; full of hidden passageways and family secrets--all of it fueled by passions ratcheted up to their extremes.

You won’t find, however, the curlicues of physical detail that usually over-decorate novels about New Orleans--the burdened moss trees, the steamy streets of the Vieux Carre. Rather, the city shimmers to life through the perfect pitch of the people who inhabit the tale.

It’s a tightly packed story, based on the late-1940s murder of Tervalon’s cousin, Leannie (“Adele” in the novel), whose body was pulled from the Mississippi River just a few months after she took up with a “no ‘count” lover with a dangerous past. The novel has given Tervalon a chance not only to excavate and piece together family history, but also to explore how New Orleans and its Old World manners and idiosyncratic temperament imprinted on his family.

“There were things that my mother explained to me about life in New Orleans,” he reflects. “Women died when their husbands became tired of them.” Just as it is a tradition to eat red beans and rice on Mondays, “it was just how things went.”

Told in the no-nonsense voice of his mother, Lolita (“Lita,” the family sleuth-by-default), Tervalon attempts to untangle the often difficult-to-decipher world of New Orleans--the second-class status of women, interracial and intraracial politics (the world of Creole lineages and skin-color-caste hierarchies). All of it viewed through a lens of a woman who was determined to fight her way out of it all.

New Orleans has its own free-form syncopation, just as it has its own language. It is a state of mind, life in patois at once strange and melodious.

For this book (the title of which refers to the above-ground tombs clustered throughout the St. Louis Cathedral Cemetery), Tervalon attempted to inhabit that very mind-set. “It was a process of going down there and being stunned. It was just the resonance of the place.” He interviewed relatives, sunk himself into books to get a fix on the milieu, the timelessness, the city’s peculiar gait.

Soft-spoken, genial, Tervalon’s easygoing demeanor belies the stories he carries--life’s razor edges he’s lived and seen.

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“My wife, Gina, thinks that my family takes a kind of genuinely perverse pride in these things,” he says. “When they tell the story, it’s like, ‘Can you beat that?’ It’s not like they’re taking . . . pleasure at the expense of the woman . . . ,” he is careful to explain. “It’s just that they lived through this. They are survivors. At first, I thought that there might be some reticence to discuss it, but there was none. . . .

For Tervalon, 41, who teaches creative writing and basic composition classes at Cal State L.A. and now makes his home in Altadena with his wife, Gina, and 5-year-old daughter, Giselle, New Orleans was a couple of words on a birth certificate. And although he spent his first few years there, he knew his Crescent City connection was tenuous. When he was 4, his family, like so many black Southern migrants during the postwar boom years, headed west to try Los Angeles for a fit. His visits back over the years to see family were inconsistent, brief at best. Consequently, his relationship with New Orleans was a pieced-together sensual patchwork of sauna-like summers, whirring cicadas, flying roaches and family stories passed down like recipes.

But none were as macabre or as enticing to him as this one.

He began with just the story’s skeleton: a handsome cafe au lait Lothario named Arnaud (“Lucien” for the novel) steady on the prowl. “He was a known murderer. He killed many people. That was the rumor. . . . And my cousin still wanted to date him. I could never reconcile that.”

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But it wasn’t simply the odd tale itself that fueled Tervalon. It was the impression that it made on the family for years to come--how that story itself had its own peculiar life. Where and when it continued to surface told him much more about the family dynamic and the slim choices and narrow expectations, particularly for women--and even more so for women of color.

It’s a theme that frequently crops up in Tervalon’s work--the shades of disparity: who has and who has not--and the long-term effects of imbalance.

Why this man was able to elude police, Tervalon figures, had everything to do with whom he chose as his victims. “I think because there was a double standard. Just like there was a double standard I noticed here growing up in L.A. . . . It was just a matter of priorities. ‘Whatever is happening in that black / Creole community--let it happen.’ ”

Indifference has many shades and forms. So while law enforcement turned a blind eye, New Orleans’ communities of color toughened their skin.

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“The attitude of my relatives in New Orleans is ‘I’ve seen everything.’ They are beyond being jaded. They are fully aware of the worst aspects of human nature because they’ve seen them demonstrated often enough in the world they grew up in.”

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This ability to stare unflinchingly at reality, no matter how bleak, strange or horrific, is a trait that has been passed down to the son. Tervalon’s first novel, “Understand This” (William Morrow, 1994), traces the reverberations not just of murder, but of the trajectories of lives lived amid persistent violence.

For the writer it was a way to bring into focus his South-Central L.A. neighborhood--away from the “live at five” spot news abstractions and into the day-to-day particulars beyond adrenaline-pumped rap. (It was a debut so confident that Quality Paperback Book Club awarded him its New Voices Award that same year.) His follow-up title, more prequel than sequel, “Living for the City” (Incommunicado Press, 1998), is a collection of stories that situate themselves in the streets of South Los Angeles, where Tervalon not only grew up, but where, later, as an adult, he taught English (at Locke High School in Watts).

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The youngest of four boys, Tervalon immersed himself in books early, encouraged by his parents--Hilary, a postal worker, and Lolita, a key-punch operator--who knew the tremendous step up a college education would provide. Tervalon began to write his first stories while at Dorsey High.

“Karate stories . . . and then love poems to my girlfriend. Typical stuff,” he remembers.

By the time he moved to Santa Barbara, bent on studying sciences (marine biology), he decided to enroll in his first serious fiction-writing class--just to test those waters. His first attempt, remembers classmate Max Schott, was a science fiction story, which their instructor, Marvin Mudrick, quickly branded “drivel.”

“Jervey went off, and he came back with new paragraphs about the life he knew,” Schott says.

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“Probably the first story that I wrote while I was at UCSB was about seeing a lady stretched out dead on a sidewalk,” Tervalon recalls. “Then [Mudrick] told me: ‘You’re it. You’re the man.’ That’s when I started thinking of myself as a writer.”

To his surprise, it was the big commercial houses that snatched up his straight-talking, frill-free storytelling.

“I think that they were looking for him,” says novelist Oakley Hall, who was one of Tervalon’s instructors at UC Irvine’s prestigious master of fine arts program in creative writing. “They were scouting for people just like Jervey at that time. People who were taking on issues . . . in a rough and vigorous [style].”

“He made South-Central Los Angeles seem like a place where people lived rather than some political territory,” Schott says.

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In many ways, “Dead Above Ground” fits very logically within Tervalon’s suite of books tracing the widely varied trail of black life in Los Angeles. They are not maps that simply demarcate the physical--here-to-there--but, rather, they reveal the emotional territory crossed.

“I think the fact that this book as an African American book, by an African American writer, is doing so well shows that the audience is looking for diverse, creative stories about black life,” says Tervalon’s editor Tracy Sherrod.

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Indeed, at root his stories are passed-down family recipes for personal survival: what it takes to get from one crisis or quandary to the next. And that’s why Tervalon figures that being intimate with the past is just as essential as contemplating the future. Looking backward, Tervalon, says, “you find out your own personal archeology, the connections. My family came to California for opportunity and they were trying to avoid the social conflict that existed in New Orleans. But what they found was that they went from the frying pan into the fire.”

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In this book, “I wanted to document how and why my family arrived here, how and where we lived. The good and the bad,” he explains. “Because we moved when I was so young, I always had a sense that things were fleeting, changing, even if I just turned my head.”

Writing has been a way to preserve it. “I talk about the violence that exists, but at the same time you can see that there’s so much more. Ambition. Hard-working, God-fearing people. The gamut of the experience.” For him, the contradictions confirm this: Wild things happen, but that doesn’t mean all--past, present, future--should be left to fall into decay.

Lynell George can be reached at lynell.george@latimes.com.


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