Between Dying and Not Dying, I Chose the Guitar: The Pandemic Years in New Orleans

Between Dying and Not Dying, I Chose the Guitar: The Pandemic Years in New Orleans

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Between Dying and Not Dying, I Chose the Guitar: The Pandemic Years in New Orleans

by James Nolan

Out Now!

About the Book

This visceral account of the coronavirus years blends first-person, present-tense commentary about the pandemic with the perspective of a memoir, including other epidemics James Nolan survived, first polio as a boy then AIDS in San Francisco. The narrative is grounded in the social and political parallels drawn from writers who have explored past plagues, such as Boccaccio, Poe, Defoe, Pepys, Camus, Mann, Burroughs, and Kushner. These pages are largely focused on the author’s native New Orleans. Although we have scholarly histories of the yellow fever and Spanish flu epidemics that previously devastated this city, what did it feel like to actually live through those dark eras? This sometimes contrarian “rough draft of history”—intensified by the bizarre plot twist of the writer’s mid-pandemic eviction from the gothic Luling Mansion while Amazon was filming a vampire movie there—will find a receptive audience for years to come. All of us are haunted by memories of this disruptive era, each in our own particular way. The challenge now is to connect our stories, making sense of our abruptly altered lives. The rest, as they say, is history.

About the Author

James Nolan, a fifth-generation New Orleans native, is a widely published writer, poet, and translator. His latest book is Nasty Water: Collected New Orleans Poems (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2018), and his recent Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy (University Press of Mississippi) won the 2018 Next-Generation Indie Book Award for Best Memoir. His fiction includes You Don’t Know Me: New and Selected Stories (winner of the 2015 Independent Publishers Gold Medal in Southern Fiction), the novel Higher Ground (awarded a Faulkner/Wisdom Gold Medal), and Perpetual Care: Stories. Other poetry collections are Why I Live in the Forest and What Moves Is Not the Wind, together with Drunk on Salt. His translations from the Spanish include Pablo Neruda’s Stones of the Sky and Longing: Selected Poems of Jaime Gil de Biedma. He has received an N.E.A. grant as well as a Javits and two Fulbright fellowships, and taught at universities in San Francisco, Barcelona, Madrid, Beijing, and Florida, as well as at Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, where he now lives.


Praise for Between Dying and Not Dying, I Chose the Guitar

"James Nolan's latest work is much more than a memoir. We all remember the frustration of social distancing, empty grocery shelves, the masks fogging our glasses. But in addition to being the author’s personal story of the coronavirus years of 2020-2023, this is a chronicle of how society has dealt with plagues throughout history. Like his first memoir, Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy, the new book captures the essence of the subject in rhythmic and—despite the serious subject—often witty prose, peppered with statistics and quotes from other writers."   —Celeste Berteau, The Advocate/Times-Picayune

(Read the full Times-Picayune review here.)


“This journal of the plague years beginning in 2020 declares itself crisply on the side of poetry. Even as James Nolan documents, with the flair of the great storyteller he is, the details of his life in a city where the life-loving citizens have been sentenced to solitary confinement, he finds the courage and humor to survive. The mix of prescience, sobri­ety, satire, and curiosity that are the trademarks of his writing shine here. I have no doubt that Between Dying and Not Dying, I Chose the Guitar will take its place alongside Pepys, Defoe, and Camus among the great plague chronicles.”

—from the foreword by Andrei Codrescu

“James Nolan delivers a rare gem: a portrait of his beloved New Orleans in the throes of a catastrophe: the coronavirus, a new but long-anticipated virus. The Martians have landed; the sky is falling; the world is on fire; nothing is the same. With this book, Nolan goes deep into America’s murk of lockdowns, hand sanitizer, insane theories, and vicious debates over masks and vaccines. He wrestles with the new scientific knowledge, yet his work transcends this, offering a view at once historical and intensely personal: a portrait of a population in the throes of tragedy.”

—Philip Alcabes, epidemiologist, Emeritus Professor of Public Health, author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu

“Disease outbreaks must be measured not only by statistical analysis but by their impact on individuals. James Nolan brings that home. This is an intimate and fascinating book expressing an important perspective. Reading it taught me a lot.”

—John M. Barry, Distinguished Scholar at Tulane University School of Public Health, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

“James Nolan takes us on a wild ride of pandemic regulations, fear, meditations on mortality, and the consequences of prolonged social isolation. Out of the dangers, un­knowns, and absurdities of the pandemic, he has fashioned a Carnival crown high­lighted with sharply ironic fleurs de lis.”

—Scott S. Ellis, author of Madame Vieux Carré: The French Quarter in the Twentieth Century and The Faubourg Marigny of New Orleans: A History

© 2024 University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press

Paperback with flaps | 6" x 9" | ISBN: 9781959569084