Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans By Dan Baum Spiegel and Grau 323 pages, $24.95 Hurricane Katrina was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Most of us still have in our heads images of the flooding of New Orleans and its neighboring parishes, and the suffering of people stranded in their devastated city. We also have opinions about the failure of local, state and national government agencies to prevent and respond to the disaster. In Nine Lives, Dan Baum tries to help us understand what the disaster meant for the people of New Orleans, how they feel about the slow rebuilding of their city, how they deal with political corruption and incompetence, and what they lost in economic, cultural and human terms. “[T]he nine intertwined life stories” in his book, Baum explains, are his “attempt to convey what is unique and worth saving in New Orleans.” Baum’s nine principal informants, as he describes them, include “a retired streetcar-track repairman from the Lower Ninth Ward, a transsexual bar owner from St. Claude Avenue and the jazz-playing parish coroner, a white cop from Lakeview and a black jailbird from the Goose.” Their stories give us a feel for their neighborhoods as communities with diverse ethnic and racial compositions, distinctive local cultures and value systems, and different degrees of importance to the local, state and federal governments. Nine Lives is not a standard oral history. Baum did interview his informants, and they “unpack[ed] their innermost moments for a stranger. … They invited me into their heads and hearts, so that seemed to be the best place from which to tell their stories.” But of Baum’s nine informants, only the “black jailbird,” Anthony Wells, an off-and-on addict, has his story told in direct quotations. The other eight are told in the manner of historical fiction. Baum explains: “I have re-created scenes and dialogue based upon what my sources told me. I put words to thoughts and feelings that, during the months working on this, were laid bare by these remarkably candid people.” Baum admits that he changed the names of “three peripheral characters to avoid hurt feelings,” but he assures us that “nothing here is invented out of whole cloth.” Note that Baum speaks of real people here as “characters.” The result does for New Orleans what John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did for Savannah. It gives us a good sense of what made New Orleans special well before Katrina hit and why its people have responded as they have to death and destruction, and to the much-delayed help in rescuing them and in rebuilding their city. Baum’s narrative begins with older informants shortly after Hurricane Betsy sent floodwaters into the city in September 1965. The stories continue up to 2007, two years after Katrina. We get to know these individuals and the city they still call home. We get to understand what they mean when they tell Baum that New Orleans wasn’t and isn’t “the worst-organized city in the United States,” but “the best-organized city in the Caribbean.” We get a feel for life among the poorest residents of the neglected Ninth Ward and its large, almost rural, “jungly lots.” We come to understand the peculiar outlooks of New Orleans’ social and political elite, both established families and arrivistes like Billy Grace, Baum’s “millionaire king of carnival” who lives at 2525 St. Charles Avenue, one of the most important addresses in the New Orleanian social register. Every year during Mardi Gras, this stately old house hosts a formal toast to the carnival Rex of 1907. Continuing this tradition was almost as important in reviving New Orleans’ public spirit as rebuilding the city’s infrastructure. Through Baum’s stories, we also get a feel for New Orleans’ native myths, and its attitudes toward skin color, wealth, class, gender, sexual identity, religion, education, opportunity and power. This is a big list, but Nine Lives delivers insights into each. One myth, especially, now finds itself challenged, if not shattered, for many residents, black and white, rich and poor. Before Katrina, according to Baum’s informants, citizens would mix at times across social, political and economic barriers and color lines with little wariness and without outright antagonism or deep misunderstanding. Many New Orleanians wanted to believe that in their city, differences of wealth, power, status and color never outweighed respect for basic human dignity. After Katrina, none of Baum’s informants believes that. While Baum’s intertwined stories read like good fiction, they convey the same sense of reality as the late Studs Terkel’s oral histories about race, the Great Depression, and the working lives of Americans. Eventually we come to understand the effects of Katrina with our own hearts, and we grasp the deep sorrow, disillusionment, and near-ruin the REVIEW New Orleans Agonistes BY TOM PALAIMA 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 20, 2009
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