Only two books about Katrina make sense to me, the graphic novel Revacuation, by Brad Benischek, and Year Zero, a compendium of articles from nolafugees.com. Both are fictions: Revacuation reimagines the storm and aftermath as a looking-glass metropolis of anthropomorphized bird-families, rats, dogs, zombie scarecrows, and disembodied hands on wheels. Year Zero is fake news that tended to happen.
I called Revacuation a graphic novel, and that's what it looks like published, but it retains the ragged glory of the artist/writer's narrative sketchbook he kept during his family's displacement to Mississippi, Texas, Alaska, California, New York, and back to New Orleans to reassemble their lives. The book is full of comedy and tragedy, and belongs on every bookshelf. I suppose one measure of the value of post-Katrina literature is how it would look to someone who knew nothing of the event, and Benischek's transformation of the cruel facts I think would look pretty monumental.
Matt Suazo’s introduction to Year Zero asks
"Have we learned to live each day to the fullest? Have we learned to cherish the time we have with those closest to us? Have we learned that every day is a blessing and that is all in the hands of the Good Lord? I can only speak for myself, but I have learned none of those things. Instead, I have learned the true meaning of dread. And not just passing, momentary, mutable dread, but sustained, soul-crushing, benzodiazepine-requiring dread. I have also learned that the truth doesn't matter and that the only thing that matters about the truth is that it is funny."
Some real news exists in Year Zero. The greatest work in the book is Tara Jill Ciccarone’s investigation of the grisly murder-suicide of Zachery Bowen and Adriane Hall, who were familiar and sympathetic neighborhood types. Ciccarone was beaten up during her reporting, and that makes it into the piece as a crucial aside. The piece reads a little like a cell phone conversation with someone having a fiery car crash.
A third book will probably make sense, Patty Friedmann’s A Little Bit Ruined. Friedmann’s work deserves to be better known for her fine and funny and outrageous novels Eleanor Rushing, Odds, and Secondhand Smoke. She didn’t evacuate, and waded a long ways to safety when the water came up.
(Calalloo published a magnificent issue about the storm, and it’s big as a book. It belongs on any shelf of appropriate response.)
On the other side of the ledger, the crude exploitation of death and authenticity continues with big names. Shameless Douglas Brinkley, a hideous writer and boyish historian, set the bar high last year with The Great Deluge, a selectively-researched overview of the event, hurried to shelves. James Lee Burke, an otherwise respectable figure, has turned my stomach with his sentimental blorp The Tin Roof Blowdown.
I was complaining to my friend Lofstead last week about the success of a mutual friend whose Katrina book has been recently released. We were at the Viceroy in Palm Springs, a strange hidden bar, the only bar worth visiting in that strange city. Lofstead was passing through on vacation from the bar he runs in New Orleans, Handsome Willy’s. He would accept none of my complaints, though he’s down on the book too. “The man filed,” Lofstead said. “He wrote it. Sure there are dozens of better books to be written about it, but they aren’t getting written. The guy showed up for work and did his job. What are you doing? Where’s your better book, your more moral book, your more appropriate non-exploitative book? Quit yr bellyaching.”
I get his point. He hasn’t written his book either.
July’s Harper’s added to the trouble. Duncan Murrell’s article “In the Year of the Storm” was part of a genre we’ve noticed of sensitive lads coming to suffer in New Orleans and leave. (Reminds me of the great Rodney Jones poem "Romance of the Poor" -- "I came as a tourist to their woe." )They mostly come to my old neighborhood, make friends, drink at Markey’s, get everything wrong, and leave badly. Hell, I left too. But Murrell’s article ends with le mot juste as a self-indictment: “thief.” And it is thievery, a pillaging of ruins, to write these pieces. It really really is, even if--especially if--the writing is beautiful. Soon after the flood, The New Yorker ran some gorgeous photographs of destroyed homes.
“Writers are the problem,” my friend Anne says, surveying the impact of Katrina on American letters. They’re the problem when they do write, because they get it wrong, and they’re the problem when they don’t write, because there’s the chance they could get it right. Revacuation and Year Zero got it right, at least, in my humble.