I’ve yet to set foot in the non-New Orleans parts of Louisiana, but after reading Stephanie Soileau’s debut short story collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights, I feel as if I’ve punted a pirogue through the Calcasieu River watershed, dined on boudin from the comfort of a new single-wide, and cruised strips of mega-stores, seafood markets, shotgun houses, and tank farms winking in the sun.
Place looms large in these eleven stories, most of which are set in and around the blighted towns of southwestern Louisiana, evoking the region’s history, mythology, terrain, climate, and Cajun language and culture. Soileau, who is originally from Lake Charles, appears to be doing for her home state what West Virginian Breece D’J Pancake did for his — with similarly poignant results.
Soileau’s stories flirt with the environmental, economic, and emotional damage wrought by the region’s petroleum industry, particularly the state’s 1980s oil bust. Her characters are hardscrabble and afflicted. They suffer from solastalgia, psychological distress caused by environmental change and unpredictability, a central concern in Soileau’s work. A pall hangs in the air, along with the heat and humidity. Her characters are rooted but rootless, attached but detached, connected but disconnected. They are profoundly ambivalent.
The collection’s third story, “The Ranger Queen of Sulphur,” epitomizes this ambivalence. Video gamer Deana lives with her parents in Sulphur, Louisiana, a “town that could only be named after the stink it produced.” She enjoys the view of the petrochemical plants from atop the Lake Charles Bridge at night: they are dazzling, with “merry twinkling lights, [and] fires atop chimneys white and slim and tall as dinner candles.” But — and there is always a “but”— “The casino boats floated at their feet, yoked to the town like a couple of water buffalo to drag it out of the sludge pit of the eighties.”
Deana, like the casino boats and water buffalo, is similarly yoked. She wants to rise above the drudgery of a life without valuable occupational skills. She wants better for herself. But when she tries to drag her brother to Mexico for bariatric surgery, she can’t manage to do it. Fond of weed, she can scarcely make it to typing class. She feels that she’s “accomplishing exactly nothing, going exactly nowhere; that she would never type or drive or toke her way out of this place that pinned her like a boulder on her toe.” She’s only who she is, after all, not a heroine in one of her video games. She has no magic power. And, in Sulphur, Louisiana, “all roads lead to Kmart or the Plant.”
The story “An Attachment Theory” follows Kay, the young mother of a seven-year-old daughter, Lindsey. Kay and Lindsey live with Kay’s father, brother, and two sisters, and space is tight. Too tight. Kay wants a home of her own, for herself and for Lindsey, and she secures a bank loan for a new mobile home, a 16×80, that she puts in a nice park, “not some rusted-out, hick-infested wreck like you see on the nightly news.” But Kay’s enthusiasm is dampened when Lindsey wants to go back “home,” back to her Paw Paw and to her aunts. Disheartened, possessive of her daughter, and craving Lindsey’s unconditional love and attention, Kay impulsively, spitefully, reacts. The scene that ensues is one of the most heartbreaking and morally ambiguous in the collection, and Kay ends up damaging her daughter while, at the same time, cleaving her daughter to her.
Kay and Soileau’s other characters mostly just manage, but some manage to escape. In “Camera Obscura,” written powerfully in the second person, a teacher escapes Louisiana with her devoted Louisiana-born husband. Despite her success at leaving home, she plays along the edges of an affair with a photographer while her husband weakens from a liver disease. Although she was never comfortable with the “rollicking joie de vivre” of her home state, “the bullshitting, the weekends fishing and swilling beer at river-camps, the rapture with which they flung themselves—Tarzan-like on rope swings—into the water,” she can’t shake a pervasive dissatisfaction, a melancholy.
Love, she tells herself, is “a choice and not a visitation.” It’s “not transcendence or revelation.” It’s “like-mindedness on questions of dinner and dishes and laundry… You pick someone, that’s all. You pick someone who knows where you are from and dig in.” But is she right? Why isn’t her love for her husband enough? “I thought if we left you’d be different,” the husband says. “I just don’t understand the fucking sad.”
There is something “in her,” “something awful in her,” as there was in Deana. Soileau implies that it doesn’t matter where you ultimately make your home. If you’re from rural Louisiana, the sad is something that you swilled at a river-camp, and you carry it with you wherever you go.
In some sense, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is about the meaning of home for the people of southwestern Louisiana. The folk here are homesick — and just plain sick. For them, Louisiana is not just a state but a state of mind, a state of being in the world. Like the iconic Southern live oaks that dot the landscape, the people of Lake Charles and its neighboring towns are rooted, but their branches are heavy, and they are bent over, bowed, and reaching. But reaching for what? For something else, for something other, for something long gone.
Last One Out Shut Off the Lights
By Stephanie Soileau
Little, Brown and Company
Published July 7, 2020