Sunday, September 21, 2008

More Truth in Fiction: City of Refuge

Here it is, the last sweet, sunny, slow weekend in summer, and we're still unnerved by last weekend's deluge. Although we are intimate with powerfully bad weather, Chicago is not a hurricane town. Yet last week, we were visited by extreme rain, and endured floods. Our suffering was minor compared to that of Galveston, Houston, and points south and east in the Caribbean, but it does make one stop and think about what we hold dear. Our homes as the holdfast of our identity, our sense of security, the fruits of hard work, and irreplacable artifacts. Every hurricane will remind us of Katrina, and I was reminded of a terrific new novel:

City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

Tom Piazza knows New Orleans, its flavors, aromas, and sounds. Its blues and jazz, pragmatism and magic, joi de vivre and defiance, amplitude and deprivation. And he understands the full tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Determined to vanquish reader complacency and blast the clich├ęs that sprout and spread, Piazza skillfully and astutely tells a harrowing two-track story.

SJ Williams is an African American carpenter and Vietnam vet who dearly loves his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, keeps his demons at bay through the discipline of hard work, and looks out for his sister and teenaged nephew. Craig Donaldson, an Anglo American magazine editor, is crazy about his adopted home in New Orleans, a passion no longer shared with his wife now that they have young children.

As the hurricane bears down on the city, everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are cruelly tested and exposed. SJ stays put and heroically helps others. Craig realizes that the needs of his family trump his own desires, and they join the exodus. In the pre-storm chapters, the conflicts and dreams of Piazza’s characters, men and women of bedrock goodness, essentially define home and reveal all the precious everyday wonders that Katrina disrupted and destroyed.

Then, in the scenes that make this such an extraordinary and unforgettable novel, Piazza dramatizes more devastatingly than any journalistic account the hurricane’s shocking aftermath, aligning the failure to protect, rescue, and respect the people of the Lower Ninth with the brutal indifference of war. By following his characters into the Katrina diaspora and back again, Piazza tells a towering epic tale of self, family, and place; terror and courage, criminality and altruism, a story as old and heartbreaking as humankind itself.

We are forever seeking higher ground.

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