‘Nine Lives' an engrossing microlook at New Orleans

‘Nine Lives' an engrossing microlook at New Orleans
August 15, 2009

("Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans" by Dan Baum, Spiegel and Grau, 2009, 323 pages, $26).

Is "Nine Lives" about New Orleans or is it about people who live in New Orleans? Readers will have to make their own decisions.

In this extension of a profile series he wrote for the New Yorker, Dan Baum looks at nine real-life citizens of New Orleans, following them in vivid detail from 1965 (roughly the time of Hurricane Betsy) to 2007 and the aftermath of Katrina.

Baum arrived two days after the levees broke and stayed three weeks, returning time and time again for more research. "Nine Lives" represents nine subcultures living or surviving in a city known as the least-organized in America - a city not much larger than Lincoln.

Baum focuses on the area known as the Lower Ninth Ward. In 1965, awash in water all the way to their rooftops, residents thought Hurricane Betsy was as bad as it could get.

They were wrong.

Katrina obliterated the Lower Ninth Ward and left the balance of the city in ruin. Some of the nine who were profiled escaped, others chose to remain and still others were trapped.

The nine people profiled volunteered hours and hours to the author to reflect on their lives and their city, They include:

* A poor Ninth Warder living in a "shotgun house," whose life is always focused on sewing a costume for the next year's Mardi Gras.

* The "honest" cop who spends most of the days around Katrina holed up in a motel with fellow officers worrying about how to keep the beer cold.

* The St. Charles Avenue millionaire who made his millions through a corrupt contract with the city by taking advantage of the poor.

Yet none of these people is good or bad by New Orleans standards. They are simply New Orleans itself.

Organized chronologically, the book winds and twists individual stories as time passes. Early on, this meant rereading some parts to keep the personalities clear. It's not a book to read over a drawn-out period of time.

In short, "Nine Lives" offers an engrossing microlook at a community, giving readers a big picture of "The Big Easy."

Did Katrina change the basic character of New Orleans? Yes.

Did Katrina change the basic character of New Orleans? No.

Jim Danielson has many friends in New Orleans and has visited there both before and after Katrina.
Comments: 0