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Refuge From the Storm

The horror of Katrina

Nov. 10, 2008
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With a prominent list of post-Katrina works-Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge, Michael Eric Dyson's Come Hell or High Water and especially Spike Lee's When theLevees Broke-having already laid solid ground for analysis and posterity, a fictional attempt at reconstruction seems benign at best, exploitative at worst. The sheer pathos of the storm's effects captured by Lee on film, almost to the point of being unwatchable, says enough to make any lessons-learned fable seem almost petty by comparison.

James Lee Burke may have pulled it off best in The Tin Roof Blowdown, using Katrina as a backdrop for a mystery/thriller that delves into the city's woes of racial tension. Even in this case, however, the aura of fabrication makes for a risky literary proposition. Now, Tom Piazza attempts a similar historical-fiction venture in City of Refuge (HarperCollins), a 400-page narrative capturing the scale of mistake, horror and hopelessness caused by Katrina. The city itself is the main character.

Piazza, a music writer by trade and author of the acclaimed novel My Cold War, found a voice for his beloved, adopted hometown with the pulsing essay/novella Why NewOrleans Matters, written in a fury in the weeks after the storm with the writer exiled in Missouri. Understandably, it's a book engorged by sorrow, anger and the subsequent melodrama that follows. But where the work shines, and what earned Piazza a loyal local following, is in the tenderness with which he evoked the city. "The generosity of spirit," he writes in Refuge, "the appreciation for the fleeting hours and minutes, expressed in gratitude and dance and eating together."

Refuge is the tale of two families: the Donaldsons, white New Orleans imports to the prominently comfortable Uptown neighborhood; and the Williamses, black, proud natives of the working-class, doomed Lower Ninth Ward. From the days leading up to and through the storm, as well as the months after, we follow each family, both destined to lose their meanings of home and reality.

With the Donaldson patriarch, Craig, filling in as a not-too-veiled substitute for the writer himself, there's a certain redundancy between Refuge and Why New Orleans Matters. The diction flows just as directly, in an almost folksy manner, with the rage still intact, and Piazza's love for his hometown is every bit as palpable. His anger-fueled commentary asides-occasionally halting the action to preach-surely would not pass muster in most college fiction classes, and even the most ardent of the city's devotees is occasionally at risk of cavity from the every-other-page, sugar-sweet remembrances.

But it's the elegiac fondness for those little, singular New Orleans moments and places-"Monday is red beans and rice… On Thursday you go to Zydeco night at the Rock 'N Bowl, or Kermit Ruffins at Vaughan's or Ellis Marsalis at Snug Harbor… Friday night is an end-of-the-week drink with friends at the Napoleon House… And you know that street, or you don't know the street, but it has a smell and a rhythm and a personality, and getting there is part of the experience"-that makes it hard to imagine any other fiction writer being so fully woven into the fiber of his work.

Perhaps what Piazza's second Katrina-themed book most epitomizes is that he, along with New OrleansTimes-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, has developed into the beleaguered voice of New Orleans. Worn, urgent, disillusioned, zombie-eyed, the two writers work with a muse of pain that would make even the most embattled of realists cringe. Together they may be the most important and repeatedly steadfast voices of defense for their beloved city.

Sentimentalism can be dangerous, especially so close to tragedy, but Piazza seems to write as an act of sheer literary catharsis. And City ofRefuge successfully captures that often-overlooked collective thought of the Katrina diaspora, about the unique allure of the city, and about going home-as a main character laments, "If I die and we still here… I don't care about buried or cremated; just take my dead ass back to New Orleans."


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