“THE FROG AND THE LIZARD,” ONE OF MORRIS’ FAVORITE TALES IN DALT WONK’S FRENCH QUARTER FABLES.
Pelican Bomb continues our ode to summer reading with Benjamin Morris on Dalt Wonk’s French Quarter Fables.
Time, it is often said, slows down in the summer. As the days lengthen, bodies go slack in the heat, and busy, driven locals take off on vacations to parts unknown. For those otherwise in need of relief from these long, languid days, then look no further than a book in which time seems not just to slow down but to stop completely. French Quarter Fables (Luna Press, 2012) is an illustrated collection of 37 tales of wisdom and woe, drawn from Dalt Wonk’s decades as a resident of the Vieux Carré and observer of all that neighborhood has to offer. Written as well as illustrated by Wonk, published in a large-format folio, and bound as an art book with illustrations to accompany each tale, the collection would on its sheer size and weight qualify at first glance for a coffee table book.
But woe indeed to the reader who treats this collection only as such and leaves it on said table unopened. For French Quarter Fables has much to offer all readers, no matter their age or level of experience in New Orleans. Hewing closely to the traditional form—short tales, with morals or bons mots at their end and peopled exclusively by animals in clothes (Wonk’s self-proclaimed delight)—their chief concern dwells on what Faulkner would have called “the old verities”: greed, lust, revenge, anger, pride, sorrow, and desire. If it is through pain and loss that we gain the most wisdom, then what Wonk has done here is collected enough wisdom to last a lifetime. In other words, throughout the book, we are given the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes.
Despite the many mistakes committed by their characters, the fables’ poetic form lends the desired air of whimsy that prevents any one reading from taking them too seriously. With only a few minor exceptions, Wonk pairs his representatives from the animal kingdom nicely, and sketches them both in words and images in such a way as to reveal the full range of their emotions. Among the best are “The Minnow and the Pike,” a jibe at the hubris of a bloodthirsty king (the pike, a thinly-disguised Louis XIV), or “The Hippo and the Egret,” a satisfying tale of just desserts. But it is those tales in which the tragedy arises from no particular character flaw, as in “The Frog and the Lizard,” that ring the most true for the average reader—who among us has not tarried too long in one place, only to find what we’ve waited for has already fled? Some even approach the sublime: “The Young Tree and the Hurricane,” for instance, speaks of a beautiful young tree seduced by a visiting storm. In language as sensitive as it is passionate, Wonk describes how “He whirled her, swirled her, arched her, pressed her tight, / amidst a darkness, total as a cave, / except for the sporadic thunderbolt / that flickered like a light-struck jewel, / revealing a chaos of things torn loose and flying — / as though the world had risen in revolt.” With superb pacing and rhythm, and just the right metaphor for the situation, here the work shines as brightly as anything in the book.