Amid the old oak trees, scattered pecans, and old plantations dotting Pointe Coupée Parish in south Louisiana, a 72-year-old man continues the search for his people along the False River. Ernest J. Gaines, once lived in these quarters and worked in the fields.
What rings true for Mr. Gaines today hasn't changed during a remarkable 40-year writing career: He keeps telling the stories of his people and his land, stories he has been unable to find elsewhere.
"I wanted to smell that Louisiana earth, feel that Louisiana sun, sit under the shade of one of those Louisiana oaks, search for pecans in that Louisiana grass in one of those Louisiana yards next to one of those Louisiana bayous, not far from a Louisiana river," Gaines writes in Mozart and Leadbelly, his new collection of stories and essays. "I wanted to see on paper those Louisiana black children walking to school on cold days while yellow Louisiana buses passed them by. I wanted to see on paper those black parents going to work before the sun came up and coming back home to look after their children after the sun went down."
Throughout his new book, a meditation on fiction writing paired with a handful of short stories, Gaines reveals the constant doubts accompanying the artist's quest - as well as the spirit spurring him forward.
More than anything, the author of "A Lesson Before Dying" and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" feels compelled to deliver the hardscrabble experiences of his contemporaries and ancestors alike, poor rural blacks in south Louisiana with few prospects.
At 15, Gaines left Pointe Coupée Parish, packed off by relatives to join his parents in California, where he gained formal education and eventually wound up at San Francisco State University and, later, at Stanford University. He never left Louisiana behind, massaging memories of the sights, sounds, and smells of the bayou. Indelible, too, were the heroic everyday struggles Gaines witnessed, including those of a beloved aunt who couldn't walk but still managed to feed, clothe, and protect the author during childhood.
Since those days, Gaines has made it his mission to recapture the world inhabited by his aunt and other sharecroppers, a world of relentless heat, insipid segregation, back-breaking work, and the mild refuge of God and gumbo, if not always in that order. Still, he wonders what might have been ("I have not read half as much as I should have") and mourns the thus-far unrealized American version of "War and Peace" awaiting the ambitious writer willing to research and shape an epic novel around the Civil Rights decade era 1958 to 1968.
"Mozart and Leadbelly" takes its title from Gaines' insistence on drawing from disparate influences. Mozart and Haydn provide creative solace, he writes, but "neither can tell me about the Great Flood of '27 as Bessie Smith or Big Bill Broonzy can. And neither can describe Louisiana State Prison at Angola as Leadbelly can."
One wonders if similar words may be written about Gaines himself when it comes to depicting the life of a 110-year-old black woman or a young, uneducated black man in 1940s Louisiana sentenced to die in the electric chair.
This slim collection includes a couple of so-so short stories, two gems ("My Grandpa and the Haint," "The Turtles") and a number of speeches and essays filled with insights on how Gaines created his most memorable works. It arrives 12 years after "A Lesson Before Dying," Gaines's most recent novel, and provides a nice stopgap summary until his next work, "The Man Who Whipped Children," which is finished but not yet published.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity here is the collection's closing conversation with Gaines. Conducted by friends Marcia Gaudet and Darrell Bourque, it is too often a fawning rehash of what we already know about Gaines. His answers are interesting, but one can't help wondering what a challenging interviewer might have elicited from the novelist's nimble mind.
After all, he flinches from nothing: "I think the artist must deal with both God and the Devil. I think you can't put one aside or the other," he said. Gaines's commitment to that tall task is resolute in this collection.
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.