Babylon Rolling

Babylon Rolling

by Amanda Boyden
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Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden

Ariel May and her husband, Ed, have just moved to New Orleans with their two small children. Their neighbor, Fearius, is a fifteen-year-old just out of juvenile detention. Across the street, an elderly couple, the Browns, are only trying to pass their days in peace, while Philomenia Beauregard de Bruges, a longtime resident and “Uptown lady,” peers through her curtains at the East Indian family next door.With one random accident, a scene of horror across front lawns, the whole neighborhood converges on the sidewalk and the residents of Orchid Street are thrown together, for better and for worse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307396815
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Publication date: 08/05/2008
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

About the Author

Amanda Boyden was born in Minnesota and raised in Chicago and St. Louis. Formerly a circus trapeze artist and contortionist, she earned her MFA from the University of New Orleans, where she now teaches writing. Her first novel, Pretty Little Dirty was published in 2006.

Read an Excerpt

Fearius stare from the car at Stumps Grocery and Liquor. Painted on the siding: Package meat Fried rice Cold drinks. He might could drink a strawberry cold drink. Orange. Fearius like cold drinks better than malt liquor when they smokin the hydroponic, but Alphonse be inside Stumps for Colt 40s, and Fearius, his bankroll thin as a spliff now. Thin as quarters and a dime thin. Juvey dont pay, dont he know.

But Fearius, he be patient. He learnt it. He waited to make fifteen full years of age inside juvey, waited four months sitting in there. Finally turned legal for driving on a learner permit when he caged up in Baby Angola with no wheels nowhere. Now he borrowing a license till he take the test. Why he hafta take a test to drive when he been driving since he made twelve, Fearius dont know. Maybe he just go buy a license. He be working soon, back tight with everybody, two weeks, three, fatten up the bitch bankroll.

Fearius flick the cardboard tree smell like piña colada on the rear- view, rag the sweat off his shaved head. He open the glovebox and touch Alphonses Glock. Pretty thing, hot as they get. Stinkin like firecrackers.

Alphonse walk out Stumps and pass Fearius a 40 in brown paper, wet on the bottom, sweatin. Everything sweatin. Fearius dick sweatin in his drawers.

“You want it?” Alphonse ask about the gun. Or maybe the beer.

“I earn it,” Fearius say about the Glock and the 40 both.

Alphonse nod, get in, take the Glock and shove it in his pants.

Two hours still before Shandra off work. Shandra gots a friend, she say. Fearius need, need, need a friend. He just gone take a friend soon, he toll Alphonse. Alphonse said, “Be patient.” Fearius remember he know patient. And Alphonse gots the Glock. Patient be way easier with a gun.

Autumn is running around in a circle at the end of its tether, Ariel May decides, as far away as it can get from the stake of New Orleans. She misses fall with a pang, squints against the thick afternoon sun, licks salty sweat from her upper lip. The streetcar stinks of too many bodies and is full of noise, and the junior high school kids in their uniforms and blue braids and attitudes with music leaking out of the little speakers crammed into their ears irritate Ariel enough so that she uncrosses her legs and takes up more room on the wooden seat, presses her hot thigh beneath her wrinkled linen skirt against the loud girl next to her. The girl can’t be more than twelve, Ariel surmises, but she has C-cup tits at least, maybe Ds. How does a body so young grow those things? Maybe the girl is older. Maybe she’s dumb and has failed a couple of grades.

The girl doesn’t notice Ariel’s leg at all though. Instead, she busily rubs some kind of pale salve the consistency of mucus onto the propped-up elbows of the girl squatting on the seat in front of her and blathers on about what another girl did. She’ll bust her fuckin skinny-ass face if she thinks about fuckin doin it again. A cursive tattoo shows on the second girl’s upper arm through the short sleeve of her thin white uniform shirt. Ariel wants to swat the tub of goo out the open window. She’s tired. Hot, hot. Here, inside this streetcar, perpetual summer drapes itself around Ariel’s neck like a stole. Like a giant piece of raw bacon stole.

The streetcar squeals to another stop. Two waiters in their black and whites squeeze on. The junior high kids jammed up front fan their noses and talk about the waiters’ pizza funk and pepperoni faces. When the streetcar takes off again, the little breeze that snakes its way past the salving girls is a drooly lick. A breeze almost worse than none. Ariel sighs and remembers woodsmoke, brown leaves dancing across a sidewalk. The people who have lived here their entire lives can’t have any idea what they’re missing.

She wonders what Ed will make for dinner. She wonders about her commitment to public transportation in a city like this.

Ed hollers hello from the kitchen. Miles and Ella bicker above the somber narration of Animal Planet surgery: “Lucky’s femur is broken in five places.” Ariel saves her breath. The instant she’d confront Ed about their children watching surgical gore is the instant he’d take the remote, change the channel, and say, “What gore? There. Look. PBS.” And smile. She’s given up on training him to greet her at the door with a martini.

“Changing!” Ariel yells, ascending the stairs. The house groans out its age with each footfall.

In September, cold water only runs cool. Ariel drops her head in the shower. She waits, knows that the water temperature won’t change, feels nostalgic, considers where, exactly, the best place is to apply a cold pack to drop body temperature. Wrist. Throat. Sliceable places. Once, in Jamaica, a man put shell-shaped ice chips in her vagina in some form of misdirected foreplay. The ice melted. Even then, young as she was, the island and the guy alike felt fake to her. Practiced. She tries to remember the guy’s name, knows she can’t, not even to save her life.

The soap rests in a soupy muck in the holder. Ish. If Ed is going to tend house, then that’s what he should do, but he just doesn’t see things. Giant snot soap. How do you miss it?

She should be fair. Ed cooks. Ed listens to NPR.

What’s His Name, the ice chip man, had a washboard stomach. Ariel didn’t come. She knew she wouldn’t the instant he stood at the end of the bed and caressed his own waxed chest in some staged, amorous gesture. She has no recollection of whether his was a name that suited him or not.

Names hold too much power, she thinks, or none at all. Everyone should have a chance to name themselves. Just today “Miss Sugar Enspice” checked into the hotel. Ariel recognized the woman with crispy yellow extensions from her music video, the one where her plump ass cheeks hang out the bottom of a pair of kiwi-colored shorts.

Jesus, some of the pseudonyms that the celebrity guests use. Axel Savage. Rod Doe. Ha! Everybody behind the front desk busted guts. Rod Doe. Nameless Cock. The pubescent musician had no clue, it seemed, as he gave her, the general manager, very specific instructions on who could and who could not know his room number, what calls could be put through. He took off his dark sunglasses, stared directly into Ariel’s eyes the way some men’s magazine must have told him to do, and said she could use his room number. She felt at once mildly flattered and sick to her stomach. His dyed black hair stood in carefully spaced spikes all over his puny head. Ariel nodded politely. She bet he had acne on his back.

The idiotic name of the hotel itself can’t be beat: La Belle Nouvelle, a Barcelona-modern hotel through and through smushed into the French Quarter at the edge of the Central Business District. They don’t even have enough curb footage on the street to get zoned for valet parking. The bulk of the property rises orange and lime green, a contemporary cyst, in the center of the block between a department store and three empty buildings being forever renovated, the continual drilling and pneumatic hammering deafening to everyone but touring bands and the feckless groupies for whom the hotel has become a favorite. Ooh, and she can’t forget the proms. Or the frat and sorority formals. Somehow, Ariel is supposed to change the clientele. A year ago April, when the new owners called Minneapolis and made the offer she couldn’t refuse, she thought the name La Belle Nouvelle was likely reflective of some sort of New Orleans charm she hadn’t yet experienced. Ah. Well.

Their own family’s names always hover, too. Fruit fly names that won’t leave. Ariel kept her surname when they married, and they gave it to their kids. Ed, fortunately, has always believed the decision to be best. But then Edgar Allan Flank is a toughie of a moniker. Ariel and Ed couldn’t break completely from family tradition though. They chose two classics for their children: Miles Davis May and Ella Fitzgerald May. Ella will answer to the nickname Fitzy when she has no choice. Drying off, walking naked into their warm bedroom, Ariel again hopes they haven’t burdened their children with expectations of greatness.

Fearius sit, full-up tired of patient. His ass sore, done molded to the car seat by now. Shandra and Alphonse fighting and fighting on her stoop. “I say I finish for seven!” she scream at him.

Alphonse dont care, mixed everything up. Now Fearius not gettin no Shandra friends pussy.

Alphonse got the Glock in his pants still, in there for hours. Fearius feel like his dick a gun, feel like shooting big old lumpy Shandra with her witchy claws that cost more than Dom Pérignon. Except Alphonse got the Glock, so Fearius not getting no fat Shandra neither.

Fearius decide to quit Alphonses company till tomorrow. Tonight Fearius gone make a girlfriend, no matter what, make sure no Glocks nearby.

It a hot night, time he make hisself a girlfriend in the Channel by Annunciation. Lots of them over there when it hot, clucking, all together on corners like hens. Bunch a chicken heads.

Kissin between houses can turn into a lay down in no time.

“The goopas are purple,” Ella says, kicking the table leg. Ariel’s daughter peels cheese from the top of her lasagna with her fingers. Her chipped nail polish has disappeared.

“Guptas,” Miles enunciates.

“What?” Ariel understands her kids less each day. She knows she should be frightened by this fact. “What are guptas?”

Miles, Ella, and Ed giggle. “Who,” Ed says. “They’re a who.




“We say ‘people of color,’ ” Ed instructs Ella, and Miles rolls his eyes. So does Ariel.


“Uh huh.” Ella nods. “Dark dark purple.”

“Nah ah.

The junior high people of color on the streetcar today gyrated in the aisle. Ariel tries to remember dancing at twelve. A table for twelve. A party of twelve. Here in this city she’s learned everybody says, about a time, I’ll be there for twelve. I have to be there for six. We need a reservation for nine for seven. In such instances, Ariel has yet to figure out which way they want the reservation. A bellhop told her it comes from the French, which automatically means it doesn’t make any sense to Ariel. Sadly, no matter what Ariel tries, La Belle Nouvelle’s high-end dinner-bar retains a reputation for serving underage drinkers.

The dancing kids filled the aisle. They seemed to want to rile people of non-color on the streetcar. Why did she have to be a non-color? She has color. “Ed?”

“Our new neighbors,” he answers.

“They’re Indian,” Miles says knowingly.

Ed lays his hand on the table in front of Miles’ plate. “We say East Indian,” Ed corrects. This from the man who didn’t notice his daughter chewing on the end of the grape magic marker till the ink had covered her entire front in a purple indelible apron. Now Ella’s favorite color seems to be a shade of Gupta.

“Where?” Ariel asks, meaning which house. Two houses on their street have sold recently, the big one immediately to their right and a little one across the street next to the ratty community garden.

“Next door!” Miles yells.

“Next door!” Ella echoes and kicks the table leg again. “Next door!”

Ariel looks to Ed to see what he thinks. “Real new neighbors, then,” she says. Ed, the local stay-at-home dad, keeps a close watch on the neighborhood. He recognizes everybody. He knows the names of the teenagers who live on the block. He waves hello to some of the afternoon regulars who frequent the neighborhood bar, Tokyo Rose. Sitting diagonally across the street from their house, the little ugly thing looks like a residential shack decked out in Christmas decorations year-round. She could kill the realtor for not pointing it out to her as an up-and-running bar when she flew down to check out properties, but then again, kudos to Numbnuts for fooling her. She didn’t think to ask about it, and he didn’t offer. Kudos to New Orleans too for burying its bars so well that outsiders don’t even recognize them sitting square in the middle of a neighborhood block.

From the Hardcover edition.

Reading Group Guide

“Once in a great while, a novel comes along that makes you sit up and look around at your world and see it anew, in all its richness and complexity. . . . A brilliant, nuanced portrait of pre-Katrina New Orleans.”
The Times-Picayune

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden.

1. Describe the structure of Babylon Rolling. Though the novel moves forward chronologically, the story jumps from one family to another. Why do you think the author chose a third-person narration with varying voices for each family? Was there ever a moment when you were surprised to learn which character was narrating? If so, why do you think the author would choose ambiguity over clarity. How are the prologue and the epilogue set apart from the rest of the text?

2. Why do you think the author chose Babylon Rolling as the title, and how does it embody the tone and atmosphere of the novel? What does the title signify?

3. What does the city of New Orleans represent for the various characters? How is the city different for longtime residents Cerise and Philomenia and for newcomers Ariel and Indira? Is the city different for the men in the novel as opposed to the women? How and why?

4. Discuss the five families residing on Orchid Street and the various tensions within each house. How are the needs, desires, and tensions in each house different from their neighbors'?

5. During the year, their first full year in New Orleans, what happens to Ariel and Ed's marriage? Why is it falling apart? What brings them together in the end?

6. Describe the other marriages in the novel, and compare and contrast them to Ariel and Ed's. Compare the relationship of longtime married residents Cerise and Roy to that of Philomenia and Joe. What makes one so successful and happy, and the other not?

7. Explore and discuss the theme of companionship in Babylon Rolling. Does Ariel have any female friends? Why is this important to the novel? Describe how her anger seems to subside when she calls and befriends Sharon Harris. How about Philomenia? Does she have any friends, male or female? Discuss the friendship that develops between their husbands, Ed and Joe. How is this male friendship crucial to the novel? Also discuss how companionship is important for all the families in the novel.

8. Why does Ariel betray Ed? What other betrayals occur in the novel? Does Fearius betray his family? How about Philomenia and Joe? Who's betraying whom in their relationship? How about Ed's daily visit to the bar? Is he betraying his children? And what about Shane and Philomenia? Is there a trust between them that it broken? Are any of the betrayals justified?

9. Discuss the theme of forgiveness in Babylon Rolling. Who asks for forgiveness? Who gives it? And who do you think deserves it? If you were in any of the characters' situations, would you be able to forgive?

10. What happens to Fearius over the course of the year? How does the author make him a sympathetic character despite his flaws?

11. What kind of mother is Ariel? Describe the other mothers in the novel—Sharon, her daughters, Cerise, Marie, Indira. Do you think being a mother defines any of them? What sorts of relationships does each have with their children?

12. On the flip side, what kind of father is Ed? Does this change over the course of the novel? Do you think being a father defines him? How about the other fathers in the novel?

13. Food and cooking is crucial to this novel. Can you remember any descriptions of food? Why does Ed eat the Browns' food after the accident with the grill? How is baking and cooking therapeutic for Philomenia? How is it also her downfall?

14. There are a number of accidents and illnesses on Orchid Street during the year. how do the illnesses (Joe's cancer, Philomenia's disease) and the accidents at the beginning and the end of Babylon Rolling both divide and unite the neighbors on the street?

15. What does the novel say about race in America today? Early on, Ariel comments that "racial issues and cultural issues can be completely separate," and she proceeds to complain about cultural issues and differences. Do you agree with her? Give some examples of both racial issues and cultural issues.

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Babylon Rolling 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I read everything, I have a particular fondness for books about New Orleans. This book just grabbed me by the heart and didn't let go. I cared about every single one of the characters, and each of them had something so good in them waiting to come out...or not. This book defies a label, but it had me reading into the night, and I took a day off from work to finish it. I've never lived in New Orleans, but I think this book comes way closer to the truth than the glamorized post-Katrina stories, I felt like I lived on Orchid Street. I think that it would make an excellent movie and I think that Amanda Boyden is a major talent. Katrina as an afterward was heart retching and brought me to quiet tears.
Guest More than 1 year ago
...Lived in the Big Easy myself for many years and this brought me back to the characters I knew and loved.....She has everything down pat....attitudes, language, customs..This is one I read from the library and will purchase for my own collection...Bravo