Emotional Exile

By Kevin Allman,
a frequent reviewer and a New Orleans resident
Wednesday, September 17, 2008


By Tom Piazza

Harper. 403 pp. $24.95

Understanding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has obsessed New Orleans writers for three years, since the levees failed and the city struggled back to life like a dowager after a stroke. Tom Piazza wrote one of the most immediate (and still one of the best) responses to the disaster, the nonfiction book "Why New Orleans Matters." Now, he continues to explain the pull of his adopted home with "City of Refuge," a novel about the experiences of two families who reside at geographically opposite ends of the city -- and polar opposites of the New Orleans experience.

SJ Williams is a fairly typical native of the city's Lower Ninth Ward, a widowed carpenter and a veteran, an African American man without much money but with a home he owns free and clear. Drifting in and out of SJ's life are his alcoholic sister, Lucy, who somehow just manages to get by every month, and her son, Wesley, a young adult with an uncertain future who knows nothing of life beyond the Ninth Ward.

Craig Donaldson is SJ's opposite -- like Piazza, he's a white transplant drawn to New Orleans by its culture and traditions. Once a bohemian, he now has a wife, two children, a house and a steady job as the editor of the city's alt-weekly newspaper. Even before Katrina, though, Craig's wife, Alice, isn't sold on New Orleans as a place to raise children. When the hurricane exiles the Donaldsons to a nice Chicago suburb, Alice is not-so-secretly thrilled, but Craig's need to get back to his adopted home town begins to crack the levee holding back years of resentment in their marriage.

Piazza fixates on some details of the storm -- SJ's escape from his drowning house, and the horrors of the flooded Lower Ninth Ward -- and skitters over others. The long days at the Superdome and Convention Center, with people dying in the streets, seem almost too much for words, and his straightforward prose sometimes turns hallucinogenic: "Prince Hamlet plays the sitar on a cooler full of body parts, Santa Claus has lice, Rosa Parks is having a heart attack on the curb."

Most of "City of Refuge" isn't about the storm but about the influence New Orleans exerts over these people, even after they're finally bused out and dumped out, dazed, to make their lives over in a strange place. All this is expressed in prose both fierce and sentimental, veering at times on the unsubtle. Piazza is strongest when he's letting his characters grope for words and meaning, not when he's delivering editorial diatribes against the federal government's failures. His eloquence distracts from SJ's and Craig's struggles to express themselves when they're not exactly sure what they're feeling, or why.

Lucy is Piazza's most memorable creation. Her life has long been defined by lack of achievement (or opportunity), yet she shows the most ingenuity of all these exiles, whether she's taking charge of a refugee camp in a Midwest cotton field or finding cash jobs in the Houston exurbs, doing hair "New Orleans style." Unlike SJ or Craig, Lucy has always had to take care of herself, so Katrina is just another wrinkle in her complicated life, and her resourcefulness shines through. Wesley finds himself adapting, too, and Alice is happy in the three-block faux-bohemia of suburban Chicago, with its indie bookshop and $4 lattes.

But Craig and SJ, different as they are, have one thing in common: They're stuck in place, unable to move on from New Orleans, unable to move back. For them, Chicago and Houston are mental dislocations as much as physical ones. That feeling of rootlessness is the central theme of "City of Refuge," and for anyone whose life has been upended by natural disaster, the novel's sense of being out of place will resonate just as loudly as it did in "Why New Orleans Matters."

Explaining this city's inexorable, gravitational pull to outsiders who see only corruption, crime, poverty and malarial weather is a tough order, but every page of Piazza's deeply felt story explains a larger truth about why people live where they do: because it's home, and heart.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company