Like a meal at one of New Orleans's famed eateries, Nathaniel Rich's new novel, "King Zeno," offers a groaning board of tasty literary treats. On the menu at "King Zeno," which is set a century ago in the Crescent City, you will find the birth of jazz, the Spanish influenza epidemic, the construction of the Industrial Canal, and a city terrorized by an ax-murderer and a "negro highwayman." If you're salivating at the thought of all this, be warned: Just like the cornucopia of delicacies at Antoine's, Rich's novel may prove too rich for some tastes.
Within its sprawling reach, "King Zeno" is essentially the tale of three New Orleanians of disparate backgrounds whose stories become violently entwined over the course of 1918. The title character, Isadore Zeno, a.k.a. Slim Izzy, is a talented but stymied black musician with a pregnant wife, a dependent mother-in-law and few professional prospects. "He could do things with the coronet that nobody else knew to try," but because there is no audience yet for his revolutionary "jass," Isadore is stuck "floating through life in steerage."
At his wife's prompting, Isadore signs on to help dig the Industrial Canal, a vast civil-engineering project that promises to invigorate the local economy while severing the city in half. That project is the prize of Beatrice Vizzini, the cunning widow of a Mafia boss, who has employed both legal and illegal means to ensure her construction company was awarded the job. But Beatrice's adult son, the sadistic and deceptively "simple, dull" Giorgio, threatens to undermine her scheme with his reckless behavior.
Giorgio ends up being part of an investigation by the book's third central character, New Orleans detective Bill Bastrop. Recently returned from military service in Europe, Bastrop is still traumatized by his wartime experience, particularly an incident in which, with "cowardice thick as wet cement," he saved his own life at the expense of his comrades'. His PTSD is causing problems with his wife, Maze, who becomes infected by the Spanish Death. Bastrop's quest for redemption links his professional and personal crises: "By solving this unsolvable case, he would solve Maze. . . . He would win her back."
"King Zeno" offers a gritty, panoramic portrait of the Big Easy, from its brothels and concert halls to the mansions of the Garden District. Isadore sums up the city's contradictions: "For all the bluster about its sophistication and grandeur — 'the American Paris,' 'the Metropolis of the South,' and poised, upon completion of the Industrial Canal, to be a 'city of the future' — there was no escaping that it was run by water-brained bureaucrats and unreconstructed bigots who couldn't make it in St. Louis or Cincinnati, let alone New York City."
Rich's novel is a hybrid of literary fiction and police procedural, and for much of the book he manages to pull off this balancing act. "King Zeno" is full of sharply rendered minor characters, gallows humor and finely observed descriptions. (The city jail, for example, "had the violent smell of raw chickens left out in the sun.") Though it takes a little time to get all these parts moving, the novel's last two-thirds zip along, full of the cresting suspense we expect from crime fiction.
Sometimes, however, I wished Rich had slowed the pace in favor of a deeper look at his characters and themes. Each of the three main strands of "King Zeno" — the origins of jazz, the construction of the Industrial Canal, the trauma of the Western Front — is complex and robust enough to provide the material for a novel of this length. To attempt to cover all three within the confines of a police procedural while also touching on questions of racial justice, civic corruption and environmental depredation is a tall order for any writer. I would have welcomed bigger helpings of Isadore's music and canal construction with perhaps smaller portions of gumshoe sleuthing and Mafia intrigue.
Other readers may find themselves wanting a different configuration. Yet, the fact that Rich comes so close to executing this ambitious literary banquet is in itself a remarkable achievement.
Jon Michaud is a novelist and librarian.
By Nathaniel Rich
MCD. 386 pp. $28