August 20, 2014
Larry Blumenfeld on New Orleans After Katrina
Posted on Jul 24, 2009
Baum’s stories work like good fiction. There are transformative moments that change a character’s course: For John Guidos, it’s sparked by the tease of a classified ad in Penthouse Variations that read simply, “Like to dress? Write the Sorority.” For Tim Bruneau, it’s a short trip over a windshield while chasing down a thug.
The differences between experiences of rich and poor, black and white, uptown and downtown come clear through these lives, but so do the parallels. Despite the acceptance letter from Southern University pinned to her wall, Belinda Carr finds herself “another Lower Nine teen with a baby on her hip.” Like Carr, Billy Grace had his sights set on something else. But soon after college, marriage and a child, “If Billy still harbored dreams of making it in the big world outside New Orleans, those were now well and truly over,” Baum writes. “The Rex mansion’s gravitational pull had drawn him inside. … ”
Joyce Montana learns to sew and bead elaborate Mardi Gras Indian suits from her husband, following a tradition passed down almost exclusively by men. And Billy Grace notices that, in New York, “it was always the women who seemed to invite them places and organize get-togethers. Their husbands just seemed to go along. He realized then how different was New Orleans from the ‘real’ world. With all the events on a Mardi Gras krewe’s calendar, it was the men of uptown New Orleans who piloted their families’ social calendars—the balls, the coming-outs, the luncheons—not the women.”
At one point, Baum describes Grace, captain of Rex, meeting Tootie Montana, Chief of Chiefs among Mardi Gras Indians. Yet the moment proves fleeting, meaningless: Despite their parallels, these two traditions represent New Orleans universes that rarely connect in a substantive way.
The primacy of culture as a binding and elevating force in New Orleans is one prominent theme. After Joyce Montana’s son Darryl lands in prison, he talks to his mother about Tootie’s Mardi Gras Indian tradition. “Before they sent me up here, Tootie told me, ‘Boy, you need to get some feathers on,’ and I wish I’d listened. I might not be here if I had.” As a high-schooler with bulk and talent enough to play both football and sousaphone, Wilbert Rawlins Jr. “could see that while everybody at Colton went to games, they wandered around the stands during the ball playing, talking and playing grab-ass. But they stopped moving and listened up close when the band stated playing.”
Decades later, as a band director, Rawlins is forced to confront a reality surrounding his chosen path when he confronts a teenager heading down the wrong path.
Baum doesn’t give us a dissertation on the wretched state of the city’s public schools. He places us in the car with Rawlins and Theodore Jackson, the new principal of George Washington Carver middle school, when Jackson writes a bogus check for $83,000 to cover a truckload of textbooks. (“I just couldn’t face another day with those raggedy-ass books,” Jackson says.)
And Baum needn’t paint corruption among city officials with a broad brush: We understand how the city is wired when a police officer—a close friend of Minyard’s—gets in trouble. Minyard thinks: “To come to the defense of a cop found naked in bed with a woman while on duty—with cocaine in his pocket, no less—would be politically risky. On the other hand, if a guy like Joe couldn’t make a little mistake in New Orleans, where could he?” Frank “saves Joe’s ass” out of personal duty, but also simply because he can. But when another officer friend is implicated in the beating death of a suspect, Minyard is put in the uncomfortable position of defending a tarnished friend through a deeper and more visible crisis.
Few writers would dare the sort of operatic climaxes that regularly punctuate New Orleans life. Besides, Baum wouldn’t be likely to have dreamed up a scene like the one in the City Council chamber when Tootie Montana, while protesting police mistreatment of Mardi Gras Indians, falls dead of a heart attack. (His fellow chiefs break into a traditional song, “Indian Red,” with a refrain that goes, “He won’t bow down, not on that ground.”)
The floods that followed the levee breaches in Hurricane Katrina’s wake come two-thirds of the way into Baum’s book: By then, Baum has told us enough to justify the idea that this is a defining episode but not the defining episode in these lives, or even in Baum’s narrative.
When Anthony Wells describes the onset of Katrina—“What happened was, the wind started up long about nightfall”—his account sounds something like the opening lyrics of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” about another great flood and failure (“What has happened down here is the winds have changed”).
In Baum’s accounts of Katrina, even familiar images prove newly gripping. Joyce Montana, in a Texas motel room, sees the Circle Food Store’s iconic facade surrounded by chest-high water. Belinda Rawlins recognizes those televised figures waving for help on a rooftop as friends and relatives. Ronald Lewis hears a radio commentator say, “The whole Ninth Ward is gone”; later, after being sought out by NPR’s Steve Inskeep, he visits his flooded-out neighborhood and announces to listeners: “I’m not leaving my home.”
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