Lots of people brag about being good in a crisis: SJ Williams actually is. The widowed carpenter learns this to his sorrow in August of 2005. After the levees break in New Orleans, wiping out his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, Williams manages to get his sister to safety, and then spends two days ferrying people in a dinghy, rowing with a board and blistered hands.
Craig Donaldson, journalist, turns out to be a little less of a pillar of strength, but manages to get his family out of the city before hurricane Katrina hits.
Both men, though, are faced with the horrible uncertainty of what to do with themselves once the water recedes in Tom Piazza’s visceral new novel City of Refuge.
At its core, the novel attempts to answer a question Craig poses to himself: “ ‘What kind of a person?’ Craig wondered. ‘If you lived here, and lived through this, what kind of a person did it take to come back and get on a ladder and start making repairs?’ ”
Piazza, a journalist and author who’s lived in New Orleans for well over a decade, first wrote about post-Katrina New Orleans in his 2006 nonfiction account of the city’s legacy, “Why New Orleans Matters.”
Published just months after the levees broke, it was an impassioned answer to those who wondered why the US should spend billions rebuilding New Orleans and those who felt the crime and corruption of the city outweighed its cultural gifts to the country.
That passion is in ample evidence in “City of Refuge,” which follows both men and their families in the days before and after the hurricane. Williams, his sister Lucy, and his nephew Wesley try to ride out the storm and eventually end up in Houston after a grueling ordeal in the floods and the Superdome. The Donaldsons wind up in Chicago, watching the catastrophe that befalls their adopted city from a distance.
Piazza’s clearly most invested in Williams, and his story carries the greatest emotional resonance. SJ and Lucy were born in the Lower Ninth, and can’t imagine a life outside its rhythms.
Craig, an outsider who sees his life in New Orleans as key to his sense of identity, is at odds with his wife, Alice, who had wanted to move away even before the levees broke. More than that, he’s just brokenhearted. “Someone would ask him how his home was – using the word ‘home’ and not ‘house’ – and he would feel his stomach buckle and he would be unable to answer. If they said ‘house’ he could usually get through the conversation.”
Piazza describes the families’ experience with a journalist’s eye for detail and a New Orleanian’s fury over the mismanagement that led to the breach of the levees and the government’s lackadaisical approach to helping the survivors.
“This is a tragedy for everyone in this country. This is the greatest country on earth, and if this is the best they can do then it is a shame on all of us. It is an embarrassment in front of the world,” says Mrs. Gray, a retired schoolteacher from the Lower Ninth Ward who serves as the voice of authority. “I imagine I have lost everything I own except what I was able to take with me to the Superdome on that Sunday. But it is not really about what we each have lost individually. It is about what we have lost collectively.”
Righteous anger propels “City of Refuge” forward, but occasionally it can overwhelm the story line. For example, at key moments, such as when describing the wretched conditions at the Superdome and the Convention Center, Piazza launches into angry stream-of-consciousness monologues, instead of forcing us to observe the horrors firsthand through the eyes of his characters. And sometimes he pulls away from the narrative to offer the big picture in a way that disconnects.
Whenever he breaks into his journalistic voice, “City of Refuge” loses a little of its urgency. But when SJ Williams speaks, a reader can’t help but listen and mourn.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.