Crescent City Blues

orbwegman Crescent City BluesNine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans
By Dan Baum
Spiegel & Grau, 335 pages, $26

About halfway through Dan Baum’s brilliant but frustrating Nine Lives, a ventriloquist’s collage of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina, Tim Bruneau, a young, strong cop hungry for some “boot-in-the-ass” policing, chases a suspect through the back streets of one of the city’s seediest projects. He turns a corner, the action freezes, and you find yourself looking through his frantic yet perceptive eyes.

“The courtyard was full of wiry young men with short dreadlocks, wearing identical white wife beaters and sagged carpenter’s pants. The fucking uniform of the day: What do they do, call each other every morning? They looked at him with no expression, a field of identical statues. But that one—his chest was heaving. When Tim made eye contact, he took off.”

Moments later the scene ends in a devastating, unforgettable instant.

Mr. Baum handles this incident—as he does so many throughout the book—with a breathtaking precision of language, imagery and pacing, as well as first-rate storytelling.

Still, even before that scene, I was exhausted—too many people, not enough plot. So I decided to try what English professors call contesting the narrative: Rather than read straight through, I went character by character. Wilbert Rawlins Jr., the high-school band director who fathers his orphaned students better than his own children; JoAnn Guidos, the proud, busty owner of Kajun’s Pub who started life as John; Billy Grace, the respected fixture of wealthy uptown society who challenges the vast economic discrepancy that is the city’s birthright; and so on. The nine tragic, resilient lives Mr. Baum painstakingly unfurls—in some cases over more than four decades—are broken into vignettes often less than a page long, alternating in no fixed pattern. The entries for all but one character are datelined. 

Because Mr. Baum’s titular metaphor is also his central conceit, a choose-your-own-adventure approach is easy to pull off, though by reading the book in a streamlined, goal-oriented fashion (that is, as a New Yorker), you may miss out on the unique and delicate atmosphere Mr. Baum is trying to re-create. The episodic structure gives Nine Lives a rhythmic, almost musical feel, reminiscent of the distinct yet intertwining melodies of New Orleans jazz. More obviously, it reflects the relaxed, non-directed nature of life in the Crescent City. As he puts it, New Orleans is a “city-sized act of civil disobedience,” its citizens “masters at the lost art of living in the moment.”

That’s half-true: New Orleanians live at least as much in their past as in their present; the future is what they have trouble imagining. This may seem charming when whiling away a steamy afternoon on the front porch with a beer, but when it results in the failure to provide Category-5 protection for the levees despite insistent and dire warnings (still the case today), it’s deadly.

 

MR. BAUM ARRIVED in the city immediately after the storm, as almost everyone else was leaving, or trying to. He stayed for weeks, then returned constantly over the following two years (sometimes with his wife and writing partner, Margaret Knox, who doesn’t get an author credit, but who’s described on Mr. Baum’s Web site as being responsible for “at least half” of what is released under his name), conducting hundreds of interviews as he tried to rebuild New Orleans story by story.

The first two-thirds of Nine Lives takes place between the mid-1960s and Aug. 29, 2005, and paints every corner of the city, from men repairing streetcar tracks on St. Charles Avenue to a secret transsexual mixer in a downtown hotel to the intricate, year-long process of stitching together an Indian chief’s Mardi Gras costume. The final, gut-wrenching section recounts the shattered days and weeks after Katrina, dredging up the horrific images that were projected onto every television screen in America. But here the victims have names: The woman perched on a roof, inches from the rising floodwaters, is Faye, Belinda Rawlins’ cousin; the one lying on Jackson Avenue with her head smashed in by a fallen streetlight, that was Marie. Tim Bruneau drove her around in the backseat of his cruiser, pleading with any hospital or morgue to take her in. When no one would, he was told by his superiors, “Undo what you did.”

As Mr. Baum writes in his introduction, the media in general were so fixated in those first awful weeks on the disaster itself that they missed the larger story of this “essentially weird” place, and why it’s worth saving.

Mr. Baum has performed a remarkable service in this regard, salvaging not just lives but entire communities in copious, stunningly rendered detail. The writing, always precise and nearly flawless, is a sort of flavored third person, merging the character’s thought and speech patterns with Mr. Baum’s narrative oversight. When this works well, as with Tim Bruneau’s chase scene, it works astonishingly well.

But even the best stories tend to lose their momentum as the shifting Sound and Fury narrative keeps you from settling in. Perhaps this is intentional, an attempt to instill in the reader the sense of dislocation and disorientation of catastrophe. And while it doesn’t quite work at book length, the depth and care with which Mr. Baum has drawn these nine lives demonstrates his understanding of their common dilemma, that is, “how to live in a place that by the rules of modern America has no right to exist.”

Jesse Wegman is managing editor of The Observer. He can be reached at jwegman@observer.com.