Some fifth anniversary Hurricane Katrina specials showed the difficulty of capturing how New Orleans is so special. I've made brief visits and gotten a sense of sizzle (see WORLD, "New Faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009), but writers need to invest a lot of time there to bite into the steak. Both the investment and the return in Dan Baum's Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans (Random House, 2009) are impressive.
Baum, a former New Yorker writer, used multiple in-depth interviews to display the lives of nine New Orleans residents, tracing some of their stories back to the previous Big One, Hurricane Betsy in 1965. His terrific mix includes a policeman, a transsexual, a coroner, a bandleader, a high-society businessman, a long-time Lower Ninth Ward resident, and the wife of a Mardi Gras Indian.
The climax, of course, comes in the New Orleans week from hell that began on Aug. 28, 2005. Baum's buildup of characterization over the first 200 pages pays off. We've gotten to know Tim Bruneau as a tough cop, so when shutting-down morgues refuse to take from his back seat the corpse of Marie, a young addict killed by a falling lamppost, his musing about her background shows a compassionate leap:
"Tim's eyes drifted shut. The burned-out, weed-choked house on Jackson Avenue had been there since Marie was a teenager, maybe longer. Coming up in a neighborhood like that, with [expletive] schools, whores, drug dealers-she never had a chance. His chest tightened, and the backs of his eyeballs felt soupy. Pretty girl, dead at 24. Tim's eyes popped open. Whoa. . . . Anybody could rise above anything in America. No, they can't, Marie said, from the backseat. How was I supposed to break out of there?. . . I tell you what, I don't even know how it's done. I never seen nobody doing it."
We learn more about officials who not only did their jobs poorly but throttled many who wanted to volunteer. One wealthy but no-nonsense New Orleans leader tells how he and others "figured we could round up some barges in Baton Rouge, load them with food and water, and float them down the river to the Convention Center. We'd bring people out on the return trip. I made the fatal mistake of asking for permission." No go.
One of the sad running gags for a few pages arises from attempts of courageous coroner Frank Minyard to get someone to pick up corpses from the street. Officers of the 82nd Airborne, the National Guard, and the state police offer to help but are countermanded by superiors. Turns out officials want it done by contract with a big funeral-home corporation: Minyard says, "Let me see if I've got this straight. Dead people rot on the streets of New Orleans for a week and a half so the feds can sign a private contract."
One of the nine major characters, Ronald Lewis, whose experience with Hurricane Betsy in 1965 begins the book, reflects near the end about the Katrina experience: "The government dangled a lot of resources, and it made everybody freeze up. Nobody wanted to start in until they saw what they were going to get. We knew after Betsy we weren't going to get no help from anybody. . . and maybe that was better."
Given that Nine Lives offers up some unbiblical language and lifestyles, it's not for everyone, but part of the reality offered up near the end is the reality of God. Ronald Lewis told Dan Baum that Jesus is "always just in time. Every time Ronald would feel himself edging toward despair, the Lord would reach out His hand and pull him back." Still, occasional passages notwithstanding, Nine Lives is neither a political book nor a religious book. It's New Orleans as seen by nine diverse perspectives captured by a talented and persevering writer, and that's plenty.