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By (September 1, 2008) No Comment

City of Refuge

By Tom Piazza
Harper, 2008
Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge is the first draft of an extremely good Hurricane Katrina novel. Smack in the middle of it, like a powerful but erratic storm system, is the memorable story of a family from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward torn apart by the hurricane, dispersed to remote parts of the country, and eventually gathered back together, profoundly altered by the experience. But bookending and sometimes infiltrating this affecting story are scenes so perfunctory and inconsequential that they seem to have come from a different writer. It’s easy to sense on any given page whether you’re reading the work of a writer imaginatively engaged with the scene at hand, or one who’s dutifully compiling the paragraphs based on a vague idea that novels are supposed to have such paragraphs, so here they are.

In a way, Piazza is two different writers. He’s the author of a handful of works of musicology and innumerable reviews and liner notes (he won a Grammy in 2004 for his notes on Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues), and in this mode he’s a jazz and blues buff who’s still as giddy as a newcomer about the music, and neither patronizing nor demoralized by its status as esoterica and its relatively small following. In 2005 he wrote Why New Orleans Matters, an outraged manifesto combined with a passionate ode that seemed to materialize only days after Katrina, as though Piazza had actually written the book in a fit of prescience before the hurricane struck, the way newspapers keep obituaries of living icons on file. Piazza knows a lot about jazz and New Orleans, naturally, but what he most demonstrates in these books is that he knows how to talk to people. He’s the enthusiast yakking your ear off at the bar and making you care about things you’d never given half a thought to.

City of Refuge is, however, Piazza’s second novel, and it’s evident that he’s still feeling his way through this more exigent form. Over half the book is a drawn-out false start. Perhaps it’s hard to blame Piazza for not having cornered the craft in his second go-round, but there’s no exculpating the complacency of his editors at Harper. Piazza needed, and is good enough to deserve, an editor with the courage to take him out for an expensive lunch and say, “Tom, I believe in this book, but you’re going to have to scrap about half of it.” Is there anybody working who would say such a thing to an award-winning writer?

What’s most urgently scrappable in City of Refuge is the story of Craig Donaldson, a newspaper editor whose dream life in a city he loves is stolen from him by Katrina and by his dissatisfied wife Alice. It’s clear by the end of the novel that Alice has been the far more influential presence. Craig and his family crawl through traffic, spend a night on hotel pool chairs and shack up with relatives in Chicago because of the storm. On the other hand, because of Alice and her growing insistence that they raise their children in a city with less crime and less cussing in the streets, Craig must endure conversations such as this:

“I want to have a serious discussion about what we are doing with our lives,” she went on. “I don’t like having to evacuate my house a couple times a year, take my children out of school, leave and not know what will be left of my house when I get back…”

Our house,” Craig offered, firmly.

“Dammit,” Alice said, “can I finish my sentences without having them corrected or edited by you?”

“Not if you are going to write me out of the script.”

It took a moment, but she went on, with a harder edge in her voice now. “I don’t like getting called into school because our daughter is using the word ‘motherfucker.’ And I don’t like worrying whether I am going to make it alive from our car to our house when I come home after dark. I don’t like hearing our friends being held up and wondering when it’s our turn. And above all, Craig, I don’t like not even being able to voice these concerns to my husband without getting into a fight every time.”

In a full-length feature about marital difficulty, this might be a viable freeze-frame, but as a sidelight it merely sets the teeth on edge. When Craig does get to the subject of Katrina, as here in a coffee shop in the suburbs outside Chicago, his rants seem oddly beside the point, more the touchy ventilation of a guy having a tough year than of someone who’s been personally touched by a catastrophe:

He had started to find the people who came into the café irritating, for no reason at all that he could tell, except that they looked happy. They looked as if they took their coffee shop and their safe, dry street and houses for granted. As if this were the way things were. Also, after living in a place that was so multiracial, the rarity of black faces struck him as odd. He would look around at the housewives waiting in line for their four-dollar latte, with their kids in strollers, talking to one another about all the stuff of day-to-day life, entitlement oozing out of their scrubbed pores all over the floor, and Craig would find himself thinking about the Café Rue de la Course on Oak Street, or maybe about Vaughan’s or Little People’s, or Shakespeare Park.

Again, a scene given to kvetching might be intriguing in the more lenient form of memoir writing, but in fiction it doesn’t wash. Craig’s story is thin on drama, but worse, it’s thin on invention. Piazza is so locked into autobiographical testimonials that he’s put a halt to his imagination: the character is so close to the author that nothing spontaneous or surprising can happen to him. Toward the end, as we go apartment-hunting with Alice in Chicago and follow Craig’s conversations with a realtor in New Orleans, and the novel has morphed into a kind of primer on post-Katrina housing prices, Piazza seems to realize that he’s written himself miles away from the things that matter to him, but he’s got no choice but to finish what he started.

What really matters, much to Piazza’s credit, is what Hurricane Katrina did to the people who lived through the worst of it. Piazza handles the storm very well. I was nervous from the outset that City of Refuge was going to be a kind of reenactment of a CNN report, but Piazza has an intuitive feel for what we already know. He smartly elides the scenes that would be predetermined by our familiarity with them—the over-reported looting that occurred after the storm is irrelevant to this novel, for instance, and Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown is not even mentioned. Most “current events” novels, such as Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, accommodate their readers by focusing on scenes everyone recognizes from Associated Press imagery, and it’s a mark of distinction that Piazza almost never relies on stock footage while dramatizing Katrina.

Google maps of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Galvez Street Wharf is to the left of the river and the Lower Ninth Ward is to the right.

Piazza’s editorials avoid staleness, too. From time to time in the narration he pulls the camera back to give us a broader view of each stage of the disaster, and here it’s his job to explain which levees have broken, which districts have flooded, and what emergency officials are doing about it. Piazza is still rightfully furious as he makes these reports, but he’s never shrill. It’s rage synthesized with reason. You feel like you’re reading a very sober, very damning final verdict:

And they [New Orleanians seeking refuge from the flood] could not have known that the levees had failed along the canals that stretched into the heart of the city from Lake Pontchartrain, as well. They didn’t know that both the design and construction of the levees had been flawed, misreckoned by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, so that badly designed flood walls had not been driven deeply enough into levees made of soil that was too soft and unstable to support them in the first place. For years, the upper-class white folks who lived in Lakeview regularly saw water seeping through the levees and the flood walls along the 17th Street Canal, and the middle-class white and black folks who lived in Gentilly reported the same along the London Avenue Canal, but their repeated alarms fell on the deaf ears of city, state, and federal officials who were incompetent on their best days, and the levee inspectors whose idea of an annual inspection was a cursory drive-by and a big lunch at an expensive restaurant on the taxpayers’ tab. Both of those neighborhoods were now in the process of being obliterated by catastrophic breaches in those levees, which would go on to flood eighty percent of the city of New Orleans before the water level in the city became even with that of Lake Pontchartrain.

When the camera zooms in (and isn’t distracted by Craig and Alice debating whether to send their daughter to a Montessori school) we get the story of the loosely-bound clan of SJ, his sister Lucy, and his nephew Wesley. SJ is the right kind of hero in a book in which the dominant presence is an act of God—he’s an upright everyman whose lot under ordinary circumstances is to be a good neighbor and a watchful older brother. A widower, and not at all over the loss of his wife, he’s content to devote his spare time to making improvements to his house. Piazza doesn’t have the skill to inject much energy into this scenario before the storm hits, and you first have to wade through a good deal of diagrammatic back-story before things get moving (the long epilogue set in the months after the storm is equally inanimate). SJ is the sort of character whom things have to happen to before he’s going to come to life in a book. Eventually Katrina does happen to him, and he responds. The Ninth Ward is flooded to the second story of SJ’s house, and after the hurricane passes he’s able to swim through the debris of buildings and bodies to retrieve a dinghy. For the rest of the day, after delivering his sister to safety, he rows around the neighborhood collecting people stranded on their roofs. There’s a careworn, persevering gallantry to SJ that Piazza displays with superb understatement. His is the heroism that comes from moral rectitude rather than dash—what another character describes as “falling back on discipline.” It’s a depiction that’s especially resonant amidst an event defined by noise and carnage:

He probably should have and would have taken a rest under ordinary circumstances. But the degree and the extent of the need around him was overwhelming, and he kept on as long as he could, through the long nameless reaches of the afternoon. Around six p.m., after dropping two women off at the bridge, he found himself about to get out of the dinghy and lie down on the asphalt roadway as it rose on its incline out of the flood waters. And he knew then that he needed to stop, and he paddled back to his house with what was left of his energy, secured the dinghy fore and aft as well as he could to the gutter, and hauled himself up by the sheet, barely able to, out of the dinghy and onto his roof.

For survivors like Lucy and Wesley, the ensuing weeks are as tumultuous as the night of the storm since they are separated and neither knows who’s alive and who’s dead. Lucy revives her motherly instincts and touchingly becomes something of a supervisor at a FEMA refuge station in Missouri. Wesley, before Katrina a hotheaded teenager, is sent to the care of a couple outside Albany, New York. At first this act of goodwill upsets everyone involved—the couple doesn’t know how to respond to Wesley’s abruptness and seeming ingratitude, and Wesley is too scared and alienated to let down his guard—and the endeavor seems destined to dwindle to be one of the well-intentioned plans that never quite works out. Then, out of the blue, the wife blacks out and has to spend the night in the hospital. Suddenly, Wesley and an aging, conservative upstate New Yorker find themselves similarly unmoored, threatened by the loss of the women in their lives. They spend the evening cautiously opening up to each other over pork chops and a John Ford movie. It’s the best moment in the novel, and not coincidentally the most freely improvised. It’s possible Piazza took the incident from a true account, but it doesn’t feel that way—my guess is that sending the wife to the hospital was a Eureka moment for Piazza; released from the constraints of reportage and left to work entirely from his imagination, he created an unforgettable chapter from the materials of a plain one.

Fine moments like this increase the sting of the inadequacy and shakiness of the rest of City of Refuge. The passion isn’t lacking, nor the intelligence, nor the inspiration: this is obviously the sort of book Piazza was born to write. It fails almost entirely on the level of craftsmanship, and as any critic of the engineers who built the shoddy New Orleans levees knows well, such failures are rooted in complacency. With a more hands-on editor and another twelve months of work, Piazza would have produced a compact and searingly powerful novel, conceivably even a small masterpiece.

As it stands, however, the flawed construction results in a contamination of Piazza’s greatest strength as a writer, his humanism. Some might suggest that the artistic purpose of combining Craig’s fairly trivial subplot with SJ’s is to drive home the disparity between their respective experiences, and thus highlight the dangerous realities of social inequality. The contrast is indeed overt, but so what? Who doesn’t already know that affluent whites had it easier during Hurricane Katrina than poor blacks did? In fact, and despite Piazza’s best intentions, the juxtaposition is implicitly patronizing. Craig is a newspaperman—he loves the music, the food, the dancing, the authenticity of New Orleans: the things he’ll always stand a little apart from. Likewise, Craig stands apart from the true heart of City of Refuge, and there is something almost apologetic about his continuous presence, as though Piazza felt that he wasn’t allowed to write black characters without also having white characters to justify the presumption. Because New Orleans’ heritage is finally not more than novelty to Craig—something he loves, no doubt, but disposable in a pinch—SJ, Lucy, and Wesley are subtly cast as novelties too, folksily authentic creatures who slather their food in Crystal Sauce and dress up like Indians during Mardi Gras. You sense that it would physically pain Piazza to think that he’s demeaning his characters, but if you can’t write about black people without sticking in an anthropological type to keep breathlessly appreciating those people, there can be no other result.

Piazza is no fool, and there is a moment of telling self-awareness that suggests he knows the mistake he’s making. Craig returns to New Orleans after the storm to conduct interviews for a column he’s landed in a Chicago newspaper, and because the best scoops come from the victims who have suffered most, he goes about rather callously badgering people to share their stories. One old woman stops him and delivers a short, stern lecture: “This event is a tragedy for the country. Do you understand? It is not just a tragedy for our people, black or white, people from New Orleans. This is a tragedy for everyone in this country”:

The woman’s sound was one Craig had heard on many occasions from older African-Americans—the formal diction, the essential seriousness, the indifference to making an impression—the gravitas—a word that Craig hated although he used it all the time. Listening to these people, usually older, he always felt exposed, as if his measure were being taken and he was being found wanting.

And from an artistic rationale, Craig of course is found wanting. What this woman (to Craig, revealingly, one of “these people”) is trying to tell him is that he’s cheapening the story of Hurricane Katrina by making it about race when it’s supposed to be about humanity. What she’s trying to tell him is, get the hell out of this novel.

Hurricane Katrina was something that happened most of all to New Orleans’ working-class black neighborhoods. That obviously has serious sociological implications and it may indeed be a genuine source of guilt to white America, but the novelist’s principal business has to be with the characters and the story they bring to life. Race is important only inasmuch as it’s part of the characters’ experiences—it can’t be allowed to creep in in the form of authorial self-consciousness. SJ, the rightful center of City of Refuge, has his novel hijacked by a self-conscious, henpecked, woolgathering white guy, but God knows there are thousands of other stories that can illuminate the horrors and heroism of Katrina. City of Refuge is a missed opportunity, but I hope that Piazza will keep grappling with those stories. A good Katrina novel is a commodity we’re going to be in need of for a long time yet.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.