1919 Rag

King Zeno

by Nathaniel Rich
MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 386 pp., $28.00
Bridgeman Images
Louis Armstrong, second from right, in the 1947 film New Orleans. With him are, from left, Zutty Singleton (drums), Red Callender (bass), Kid Ory (trombone), Charlie Beal (piano), Bud Scott (guitar), and Barney Bigard (clarinet).

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…

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