Thursday, June 03, 2010

Tom Piazza: City of Refuge

I haven't read Tom Piazza's "City of Refuge" before, but I've read it before. Like books about Mexico and the border, I pick up almost everything I can pick up about New Orleans and Katrina, so somewhere I picked up this book. It's ok, I guess, but it's been done before: Dan Baum did it better with "Nine Lives," and he did it better in a nonfiction form. Spike Lee did it better in documentary film. Those works are real: Piazza's fiction is like reading the book for people who somehow missed Katrina and need to be reminded about what happened and the emotional impact of it all.

"City of Refuge" follows two extremely over determined characters: Craig, the middle class educated white New Orleans transplant who moves with his young, white, middle class wife to New Orleans and becomes the editor of an alt-weekly music journal, living the dream. Except that his marital life sucks, and he can only get through the day using his family therapy techniques. The other character, SJ, lives in the Ninth Ward and is almost 60, a black man, an upright pillar of the community who does construction for a living and is altogether rather Jesus like. He is a father figure for his sister's son who is trying to find a way in the crime-ridden New Orleans world and he helps out his sister stay on the right path. He stifles memories of Vietnam and generally stands in for black people in the Ninth Ward. The Hurricane hits and of course the white family has the means to flee, though their evacuation is not seemless, and the black family is stuck in New Orleans. The Jesus-like elder statesman even helps rescue other people in the community after he finds a boat floating in the muck. We watch his nephew struggle with hard choices and his down-and-out sister make conniving choices in a makeshift camp thingy. Meanwhile, the white couple are driven further apart than back together by their struggles and traumas. Because white people don't have economic problems, right, only marital ones?

I kept reading this book, and there are moments close to real genius, where Piazza hits it: the men really are shaken to their core and don't know what to do or how to do it. They've been uprooted. Their lives are gone, their homes are gone, they're totally disoriented and lost. Reading those moments made *me* feel disoriented and wondering where I was, which is not a good feeling. Craig, the white dude, is stunned and angered by the people walking around like everything is normal, which is a humbling thought: I walk around every day like everything is normal. It's not, for so many people all over the world, and it's good to acknowledge this. We live in our little bubbles, and it's vertigo inducing to be reminded of this. Piazza does this well. But if you need a book about the Katrina experience, go straight to Dan Baum or even watch Spike Lee, and skip this one.


Anonymous said...

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