In December of 2004 my husband and I took a short vacation in New Orleans. Like hundreds of thousands of tourists before us, we fell completely under the city’s odd spell. In fact, I have a vivid memory of experiencing a moment of total bliss as we strolled a funky stretch of Magazine Street one sunny morning. Who could have imagined that nine months later that same block would be a morass of broken signs and spray-painted plywood?
Ned Sublette – who lived in the city at that exact time – did have such a premonition. “They’re all in denial,” he told a friend one night the spring of 2005 as they traveled uptown to hear some jazz. Throughout the months he spent in New Orleans, he says, he was constantly haunted by the feeling that the life around him was “imperiled.”
The Year Before the Flood tells the story of the blissful yet troubled, intense but joyous, never-entirely-comfortable year that Sublette spent in New Orleans. It also happened to be the year before the city was struck by hurricane Katrina.
Sublette was a Tulane Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at Tulane University for the school year of 2004-2005. Out of that experience came his excellent history “The World that Made New Orleans” (2008). But his experiences had left him with another, more personal book yet to write – story of the year he spent in New Orleans, brutally punctuated by the city’s devastation at the hands of Katrina.
He didn’t come to Louisiana as a stranger. Sublette actually spent the first nine years of his life in Natchitoches, La. But he has since passed most of his adult life in New York, and when he and his wife, the writer Constance Ash, arrived for his fellowship New Orleans was in most senses foreign territory for them – a sensation that was alternately delightful and terrifying.
They rented a 1880s home in the Irish Channel district, charmed by its old floors and 14-foot ceilings and the way they were lulled to sleep by the sound of passing trains from the other side of the Tchoupitoulas wall. They were charmed, that is, until they met a neighbor who casually said, “Oh, that’s the house where that boy got killed.” It turns out a previous tenant, a Tulane student, had been stabbed to death there by two intruders looking for money.
It’s hard to say how much of “The Year Before the Flood” is really about Sublette and how much is about New Orleans. Most of the time, the two seem intertwined. The fear of violence that Sublette and his wife were never able to shake throughout their time there permeates much of the city history that Sublette relates. Yet the intense joy that he takes in the city’s music (Sublette has a rich background as musician and music historian – he’s also the only person I’ve ever heard of to graduate from the University of New Mexico with a degree in guitar) is also a major part of the book and of the music history that he shares.
The Sublettes eventually settle in, learning to develop “a crescent-shaped sense of direction” so they can navigate the city, and fall in line with its traditions. They marvel at Mardi Gras (although it’s the African-American traditions – especially the dancing of the New Orleans Indians – that fascinate them most) and Sublette’s descriptions here are vivid and evocative. Sublette enjoys going out to hear live music several times a week but Constance prefers to stay home – always a problem because he can never shake his fear of her being alone in their house after dark.
It is JazzFest, however, that finally drives them out of New Orleans. A drunken reveler finds his way into their bedroom (actually trying to access an apartment above them) but they cannot recover from the incident and they leave New Orleans in May, a month earlier than scheduled.
Then, in August, they hear of the storm descending on the city and Sublette’s darkest forbodings for the city seem to be realized.
Sublette mentions his disdain for the “dreaded gumbo metaphor” so often trotted out when people write of New Orleans. Too bad, because that’s just what “The Year Before the Flood” is – a highly seasoned mix of music, race, politics, history, city lore, and personal tale.
“The Year Before the Flood” is a glimpse of America’s most idiosyncratic city through a highly personal lens. But beware – it may also break your heart.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.