Nine Lives – Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum (2010) – There is no other city in the United States like New Orleans. It has gone its own way for centuries, and the rest of the nation knows little about it. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy changed New Orleans. Forty years later, a hurricane named Katrina devastated the city again. Here are the stories of nine New Orleanians who lived in the world between and after those storms. From the rough and tumble Ninth Ward to the elegance of uptown, these nine people tell the story of a legendary city and historic change.
In Orson Welles’s iconic “Citizen Kane” there is a scene where Kane’s attorney, Mr. Berstein (Everett Sloane) remembers a young woman dressed in white he’d seen on a ferry years before. It is a moment of longing for a perceived perfection, never touched and only seen from afar. There’s a similar series of scenes in George Lucas’s “American Graffiti”, where Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) sees a beautiful blonde in a white Thunderbird. He speaks to her eventually, but only on the phone. Like Bernstein, Curt will yearn for this perfection from a distance.
That describes my relationship with New Orleans. I’ve been there twice in my life as an adult and once as a child. Both times as a grownup I was busy with projects that only allowed brief dalliances with the city. One put me near the river on the uptown side, the other in the devastated post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward. That storm deepened my connection with New Orleans. I have family there who became part of the Katrina diaspora (but have since returned). There is something about that city that calls to me. In “Nine Lives”, Baum talks about the unique personality of the city. New Orleanians say to think of their city not as the most disorganized city in North America, but as the best-organized city in the Caribbean. The culture there is not that of the bustling metropolises of the north. Time flows differently, money is not the be-all and end-all of life. For most of the world, New Orleans is Mardi Gras, food, and Jazz. But for the nine lives at the center of this book, there is a different New Orleans. Yes, music, food, and Mardi Gras have an important role, but so do family, beauty, and tradition. It is the music of the second line, the food found in families and neighborhoods. Mardi Gras itself has not been one celebration, but two. Divided just as the city itself is. The city they show us in the book is a place of complications and contradictions. Those who live there have few illusions about their city but love it with a ferocity that a more mobile society has lost. Even as perhaps the least “American” of cities in the continental United States, they have a rootedness in that place that was once very American indeed.
“Nine Lives” was a hard book for me to read. The intensity of the stories is part of that, but so is the fascination with the people and places. I set the book down dozens of times to look up names, and to use online maps to put myself in those places described. The stories of Katrina’s destruction slammed me back into memories of the Lower Ninth Ward years later, when I was there with a church group doing what we could to help rebuild. That visit was years after the storm, but the Ninth Ward remained a haunted and haunting place. Abandoned homes still bore the marks put on by the rescue teams. Date searched, so many found alive, so many found dead. Blocks of devastation with an uncanny silence. A man told about his daughter who drowned in the house on the corner. Who asked only that I pray for him and his neighborhood. The group stayed within sight of the Superdome, a place that symbolized all the best efforts of the city, and its greatest failures.
These nine lives include folks from all over the city. Joyce Montana, wife of a legend. Tootie Montana, who changed the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians, and became the King of Mardi Gras in a way no other ever had. Dr. Frank Minyard, the legendary trumpet-playing coroner for New Orleans. When Katrina hit, he saw just how corrupt the “system” would be as the city, state and federal governments failed the Crescent City. John Guidos struggles with who he is at a fundamental level and becomes an institution in the city when John becomes Joyce. Billy Grace began life on one side of the social “tracks” and worked his way to the other, even if he never truly wanted to be there. A cop, a music teacher, and a young woman struggling to make the best life for herself and those around her. Each of the nine lives reveals another facet of the flawed but stunning jewel of the city. Stories of triumph, tragedy, and loss. Also, the story of the endless vitality of the people who will not abandon it. No matter what.
Rating – **** Recommended