Reading The French Quarter is very much like listening to your sketchy great-uncle tell a story about his youth. The book, by Herbert "The Gangs of New York" Asbury, is long, meandering, and peppered with a few truly cringe-worthy statements about women, people of color, and human nature. On the other hand, it's a hell of a story, full of all kinds of entertaining depravity; somewhere in it there is probably someone named Fanny Sweet or Stumpy Jed LaRoux, and they probably come to a bad end.
Though it's a book of history, there are a few things in it that I suspect are not exactly true. And our narrator is at times, shall we say, not so much the progressive though, to be fair, the Progressive Era had only just started when he was writing.
But then again, this thing reads like Tom Waits' bible.
The French Quarter is full of river bullies, rakes, bounders, mashers, bawds, grafters, grifters, drifters, madams, madmen, and all manner of heels - well-heeled, round-heeled, or otherwise. Better still, it's also full of fascinating details about life in the Big Easy, from its swampy foundings to the closing of Storyville.
It's not all lowlifes and petty vice, though. There's plenty of political corruption, international intrigue, and otherwise high class shenanigans throughout the book. For example: there was a very famous (at the time) block of row houses where the sons of the gentility kept mulatto mistresses until they married a more "proper" lady, at which time the new husbands signed the property over to said mistresses and broke off their relationships.* Classy.
My favorite chapters were those on "Voodoo," "Gamblers Afloat and Ashore," "Hell on Earth," and "Some Loose Ladies of Basin Street". And while the chapter that largely centered on Jean Lafitte and a few other Gulf Coast/Mississippi River pirates was a little dry...um...pirates.
Last but not least, bonus points go to the author for giving credit to Mobile for introducing modern American Mardi Gras to New Orleans.
If you want a glimpse into the shady but very interesting past of one of the few great old cities in the nation that wasn't founded by crabby WASPs
Or, if you want to learn more about the boxer with the ball and chain attatched to the stump of his left arm
...this book is for you.**
* Or, you know, so they said.
** And don't be put off by the first chapter, which read like my 9th grade Alabama History textbook, and had me thinking I'd made a terrible, terrible mistake.