Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans
by Dan Baum
Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans reminds me quite a bit of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. (New York reporter discovers foreign quirkiness of Southern city and moves there to soak in the regional atmosphere.) In fact, in a negative review of Midnight on Amazon.com I found a phrase meant to be critical, but summarized why I would recommend Nine Lives (and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which I loved):
“Nothing of any interest happens in the entire first half of the book -- just Southerners caught in the act of being themselves. National Geographic stuff.”
(I happen to think 'Southerns caught in the act of being themselves' IS interesting!)
Dan Baum originally found himself in post-Katrina New Orleans reporting on recovery efforts for The New Yorker. But as restoration efforts dragged along, he became captivated by the city’s residents, so determined to rebuild their lives in a city infamous for corruption and scandal. As he interviewed and poked around, he found nine voices that he wove together into a comprehensive narrative of New Orleans, beginning in the 1960s during the raging of Hurricane Betsy and ending in December 2007 as a parade snakes its way through the Ninth Ward.
The characters of Baum’s novel come from a variety of backgrounds. There’s Joyce Montana, wife of the founder of the Black Indian tradition that helps color Mardi Gras. Wilbert Rawlins Jr. struggles to connect to his band students and ends up sacrificing happiness in his personal life to help his musicians discover the redemptive power of music. The reader follows John Guidos on his transformation into JoAnn and Frank Minyard on duty as New Orleans’ Parish Coroner. The story rolls smoothly forward, transitioning seamlessly from one person’s tongue to the next. Some of the storytellers have met. Some are friends, some are lovers. All are bright colors bringing a special glow to the city.
I was really pleased at how naturally the story of New Orleans unfolded. For the writer I imagine there may have been a temptation to include a ‘wrap-up’ party, some sort of clean ending that crossed the t’s and dotted the i's. If Dan Baum ever entertained such an idea, he was smart enough to shove it aside. If you want to see Southerners in their natural habitat, celebrating the unique attributes of New Orleans, a city perpetually out of sync with the rest of the United States, pick up Nine Lives and give it a read!
Edited 4/10/09 to add: If you visit Dan Baum's website, you can see photos of the people he profiled, and short videos he's made about each person. It provides a great visual for many of the places and faces he mentions in the book - a great supplement to his narrative!