We may think we exercise some modicum of control over our lives. But when the maelstrom hits, as Hurricane Katrina does in Tom Zigal’s epic Many Rivers to Cross, we realize the order governing our lives is temporary and paper-thin.
The minute Vietnam vet Hodge Grant and Duval, the ne’er-do-well father of Grant’s grandchildren, jump into a homemade boat to attempt to rescue Grant’s daughter and grandchildren as the waters rise in New Orleans, we realize there are no maps to guide them, or us. The fragile center of their lives, and of life in New Orleans, cannot hold as the chaos of Katrina sweeps the known world from its moorings.
Grant’s daughter and her children wait on their roof to be rescued. Grant and Duval evade law enforcement and marauders as they try to find her house in a world without landmarks. A young woman caught in her floating VW screams for help. Grant ties floating bodies to lampposts so they will be found. Drunks party through the night in a Bourbon Street bar above the flood. An old man poles a raft heavy with bodies as if he’s crossing the river Styx. Gangs loot stores and homes and assault victims in boats, huddled in shelters and on rooftops. Is this the beginning of the end of the world?
The only order remaining is that carved by human connections: acts of generosity and kindness or violence and nihilism. Grant’s son takes part in a jailbreak from the Orleans Parish Prison as rising water threatens to drown men in their cells. He breaks into an apartment to escape prison guards patrolling in boats, only to find three hungry young children whose junkie mother has died in the bathroom. Suddenly, he is no longer on his own.
Opportunities for redemption and salvation offer themselves up at every turn. Sometimes they are accepted; sometimes they are shunned. And the waters keep rising.
Tom Zigal has written an important book. But unlike some important books, it’s also a page-turner. Its characters, and readers, cannot find terra firma.
Now based in Austin, Zigal lived in New Orleans for a few years, and the city grew on him. This is the second book of a New Orleans trilogy in progress. The first novel, The White League, was nested inside a white, racist, elite society that clandestinely controlled New Orleans.
Many Rivers to Cross is largely a book about African-Americans living in New Orleans because, as Zigal told his audience at a reading, “Katrina was a uniquely African-American tragedy.” As such, the African-American characters are the norm, and the only characters indentified by race are those who are not African-American—the inverse of the standard American narrative. Zigal is scrupulous about the dialogue, making sure the language is right. It’s a high-wire act by a white writer, and he makes it all the way across.
Zigal launches this novel into a world spinning out of control. Even with some respite at the end, we leave it understanding that the order of our world is fragile and temporary, and the waters will rise again.