New Orleans is a cliché, a loud, brassy, brazen hussy of a cliché, lubricated with booze and animated by jazz. Tits and beads. Corruption and hurricanes. Thanks to the copious, seasonally ubiquitous marketing efforts of Big Beer, that’s all you know and all you need to know.
And yet New Orleans keeps tempting writers to discover, in archaeological digs of the heart and the soul, what else is in this unlikely settlement in the swamp at the mouth of the continent’s great river. John Kennedy Toole legendarily wrote his life away creating the city’s great comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), populating midcentury New Orleans with a gallery of only slightly exaggerated grotesques. (The legend includes his mother getting the novel, rejected by twenty-two publishers, into print after his death. It won a Pulitzer.) Michael Ondaatje used dreamlike imaginings in Coming Through Slaughter (1976) to conjure an undocumented reality of the city’s great claim to American cultural primacy, the birth of jazz in the front parlors of New Orleans brothels.
The bookshelf containing the outpouring of “post-Katrina” books has been groaning for a decade now. John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein’s Path of Destruction (2006) and Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan’s The Storm (2006) set themselves the task of dismantling the media narrative of the 2005 flood that nearly wiped New Orleans off the map. That narrative included a city below sea level, poor black people as the primary victims, and a Category 5 hurricane whose ferocity/wrath/rampage was unprecedented—all found, thanks to painstaking research (largely conducted by two major projects, at UC Berkeley and LSU), to be largely or completely untrue.
Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun (2009) told, in careful, unsensational prose, the shocking story of an ordinary New Orleanian (a Syrian-American, as it happens) caught up in racial profiling at a most unfortunate moment, and revealed the one thing the federal government was able to do with remarkable alacrity in the middle of the flood: namely, assemble a secret prison in the parking lot of the Greyhound bus depot. Tom Piazza, in Why New Orleans Matters (2005), made a reasoned, passionate case for the city that then House speaker Dennis (“Coach”) Hastert thought was better left for dead. And on television, David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s Treme (2010–2013) attempted the near-impossible: an impeccably fact-checked fictional portrait of the city’s musical and culinary culture as it worked and played its way through the early stages of post-flood recovery.
An HBO executive said, when I offered them my documentary feature on the flood’s real causes, “We’ve done New Orleans.” Have we? Unlike the crude oil under the Gulf or the wetlands through which pipelines and canals to transport it have been built, the city’s great natural resource, story, is in no danger of being depleted. When you live in New Orleans, you apportion substantially more time for every errand, knowing that someone along the way, friend or stranger, will arrest your progress with a deliciously detailed account of their day, their post-flood recovery, their life. Knitting those stories into a credible and absorbing narrative is still the mandate of New Orleans writers who choose to set their work in their fascinating and infuriating home.
That’s the task Nathaniel Rich sets for himself in King Zeno, a sprawling novel about a pivotal year and a half in the city’s history in 1918–1919. Some New Orleanians, like police detective Bill Bastrop, are returning from World War I, with scars that are barely visible but unbearable. Others, like Beatrice Vizzini, the doyenne of a Sicilian family in a small-time protection racket, are using the opportunity of a crony connection in constructing a new canal to try to move from the “shadow business” to something slightly more legitimate. And Isadore Zeno, a young musician with an ear (and the lips) for a new way to play his cornet, is trying to give up being a sideman in petty street crime before his luck runs out.
The previously prim and comfortable life of New Orleans’ privileged is experiencing fissures. The waterway being built, the Industrial Canal, is the first of several attempts to more closely connect the city with the Gulf of Mexico, to the supposed benefit of commerce and to the ultimate detriment of the wetlands that (we’ve learned only recently, as they disappear at the rate of a football field per hour) help protect New Orleans from storm surge and hurricane winds. What started in 1918 culminated in the 1960s with the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet, whose design and failed maintenance both contributed to some of the 2005 flooding.
The city’s racial divide was never textbook southern; New Orleans had the largest population of free people of color before the Civil War, while at the same time serving as the nation’s largest slave market. The free people of color became part of the city’s ruling class, and Creoles learned their lessons from their white brothers well: some Creole social clubs had a “paper-bag test” for admission (you could not gain entrance if you were darker than it was). But “jass music,” as it was first known, started to bridge those divides long before the civil rights movement. Isadore Zeno, who styles himself Slim Izzy (but who is granted the sobriquet King Zeno by the real-life bandleader Kid Ory in the same breath that he refuses to hire the youngster), longs for the chance to play his music for white people, to drive them crazy past the point of caring about color.
The city Rich depicts is riven by fear: of the worst flu epidemic in American history, and of crime—specifically, a serial killer given the nom de mort “The Axman” by the local papers because of his intimately brutal choice of weapon. Solving the riddle of the killer’s identity is the driving motivation for Detective Bastrop, who otherwise seems unmoored from life by a brutal dose of survivor’s guilt. If, like me, you are bored past tears by police procedurals and crime stories, you are safe here: Bastrop, like Mrs. Vizzini and Izzy, their families and co-workers and adversaries, are fully drawn characters caught in the cross-currents of a city already mourning the loss of its nineteenth-century grandeur and trying to imagine what the future holds. Most heartening, no one in the book talks like a New Orleanian: there is no awkward attempt to recreate any of the dozen dialects the city to this day maintains like manicured parkland.
Like Treme, King Zeno hews closer to the truth—the historical truth, at least—than much fiction; there really was an Industrial Canal project and a Spanish flu epidemic and an Axman terrorizing the town in 1919. Jazz really was breaking out of the brothel parlors and black bars in the “backatown.” Rich has done his research well. The city’s geography, always quixotic (its streetscape follows the curvilinear path of its river, so the East Bank is west of the West Bank and parallel streets end up intersecting), was subjected to some drastic urban renewing after World War II. But you walk, or run down, the old streets in King Zeno with the joy and dread of the time.
For the folks in this book, carnival is a peripheral moment, not—as it was for the town’s hierarchy then and now—a central organizing principle. These people aren’t playing at topsy-turvy, kings becoming paupers and vice versa for a day; the world at the end of its first global war is doing that for them, for real.
Over the half-century before the 2005 flood, New Orleans, like many older American cities, was shrinking. White flight to the suburbs combined with the oil industry’s exodus to Houston (after it littered Poydras Street with undistinguished modernist towers) to reduce the population by about a third. The waves of immigrant groups—the Germans, the Greeks, the Irish, and the Sicilians that ran the corner groceries preyed upon by the Axman—receded. Brasher southern rivals like Charlotte and Atlanta raced ahead as regional banking centers, while New Orleans seemed content to bask in its uniqueness, as the American city that embraced its past even at the risk of letting its future float away.
The city continues to feel more European, and Caribbean, and even African, than American. Through the efforts of early preservation activists like Clay Shaw (rewarded for his efforts by being prosecuted by then district attorney Jim Garrison in the Kennedy assassination case), the “urban renewal” craze was halted at the border of the French Quarter, left instead to drive concrete wedges through the heart of downtown black neighborhoods. But unlike other American cities, there’s much history beyond the borders of the well-preserved Old Town. Buildings, like people, still tell their stories, reminding us that aping old styles cannot recapitulate the delight of knowing what these walls have witnessed along a city’s wandering path toward its upcoming tricentennial.
The “federal flood” of 2005 marked a turning point. It got that name among locals for reasons that harken back to the digging of the Industrial Canal in 1919. Critics back then, as Rich recounts, feared the new waterway would bring storm surge into the heart of the city, by connecting the river to Lake Pontchartrain. They may have been right. A floodwall along the canal (built by the Army Corps of Engineers) collapsed in two locations, though the surge never got to the top of the wall, launching an eighteen-foot wave that inundated homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Mark Twain may or may not have said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” (or the addendum that “in hip-hop history, only the vowels have to match”), but another part of the 2005 flood had an eerily similar pattern. In the 1940s the corps pitched business-hungry city fathers on the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet, a direct connection between the Gulf of Mexico and the Industrial Canal, a straight-line bypass of the curvy Mississippi. Critics, decades after the time of King Zeno, again predicted disaster. Again, they were right: the design and maintenance failures of the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet were so egregious in causing the flooding of St. Bernard Parish (and the destruction of nearly the entire housing stock of that suburban county) that a federal judge excoriated the corps in a 150-page opinion. That finding was upheld by a three-judge appeals court panel, which, in a turn of events any novelist would envy, decided six months later to reverse its own ruling.
Having survived the most existential of its many crises (not only the Spanish flu epidemic in King Zeno but also, a decade earlier, the last yellow fever epidemic in North America), New Orleans renewed itself as it restored itself. In 2005 it had lost 100,000 of its poorest to a federal relocation that included no return tickets. The renewal took place on two different levels simultaneously: grassroots and institutional.
On the grassroots level, early returnees phoned and e-mailed their former neighbors to persuade them to join the homecoming. Homeowners and businesses gutted and demolded their properties, with the help of friends, family, volunteers, and, later, the hard-to-navigate system of federal aid for property owners called Road Home (hard to navigate by design, given congressional distrust of “those people down there”; there was no such program for owners of rental properties or for renters). Volunteer organizations sprang up, almost always headed by women, to agitate for structural reforms—to the levee boards and the tax assessment system, primarily—which succeeded at the ballot box. As a veteran of public meetings, council hearings, and protest gatherings, I marveled at the discipline and economy of the community meetings that weighed and popularized these reforms: the prospect of civic death really does focus the mind.
Salivating at the “clean slate” they perceived down yonder, city planners and urbanists and urbanologists flocked to the stricken city, inviting citizens to hundreds of meetings at which its future would be imagined. The results ended up as hefty unread volumes on city officials’ shelves and in front-page stories about neighborhoods that would be “green-dotted”—allowed to return to nature as the metropolis shrank. The citizens of those neighborhoods had different ideas, and LaToya Cantrell, the leader of one such neighborhood movement, has just been elected mayor, one of two African-American women in the runoff. It turns out that the future the people of New Orleans imagined looked a lot like…New Orleans.
Up on the institutional level, things were very different. Three vital local systems—health care, education, and public housing—were subjected to dramatic if not brutal restructuring with the impetus of the Bush administration, which saw an opportunity to undo “statist” New Deal–era arrangements. It must be noted, in fairness, that state and local officials abetted these “reforms.”
What the city feared, as it gazed at its sudden conversion to an involuntary Venice, were the problems of failure, like the “jack o’ lantern” effect in which few residents returned, and generally dark neighborhoods were pockmarked with the occasional lighted home. It feared disinvestment, the exodus of the young, the return of crime. Crime has returned, but the problems New Orleans faces now are those of success—like gentrification and the possible dilution of the intense local culture. Ada Colau, the radical mayor of Barcelona—a city not unlike New Orleans in its vivacity, exuberance, culinary tradition, and complex relationship to the dominant national culture—won election in 2015 by warning that her municipality, experiencing a major upsurge in tourism, risked losing its soul. It rang a certain bell.
The flood, and the exodus, tore at the tightly knit fabric of the community—three generations of a family often lived within blocks of one another. Rising rents have exacerbated that threat to the fabric, upon which depends the survival of many of the city’s unique traditions.
For all that change, the city is still recognizably New Orleans. It is, as Dan Baum writes in Nine Lives (2009), his invaluable portrait of locals pre- and post-flood, a city that lives by neither the dollar nor the clock. The infamous corruption, in the time of King Zeno and today, is ridiculously penny-ante compared with, say, New Jersey or Illinois (although, in fairness, a recent indictment alleges that New Orleans has just joined the million-dollar club in “diverted” public funds). Brutal crime coexists, then as now, with refinement and that most rare of civic virtues, grace.
Despite some new arrivals complaining to police of “noisy musicians coming down the block,” the music lives in clubs and concert venues, but it’s still born and bred in the streets. Despite a world of guitars and DJs, the piano and the trumpet reign. Local musicians, just as in Slim Izzy’s time, face a binary choice: migrate north to become ambassadors of the city’s music (Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis) or stay home (like Izzy) and become one of its kings.
Crime, music, corruption, lively conversation among friends and strangers alike—the (to use a cliché) gumbo of social relations that, along with festivities and culinary traditions like red beans and rice on Mondays—define New Orleans culture: they are not so very different now than they were in the world inhabited by the vividly drawn people in Rich’s novel. Central to that world then and now is the Industrial Canal, that deep dig into swampy muck where the lives of the detective, the doyenne, and the cornetist tangle and mingle in King Zeno. Its excavation is the book’s central metaphor—for how far down depravity can sink, for how low you have to stoop to recover your manhood, for how deep you have to dig to discover your future. The animating impulse of the canal is that of the city’s birth: the human demand that water be tamed in the service of commerce.