Reading, speechifying, loving New Orleans

I haven’t consciously avoided Hurricane Katrina evacuees, but my sidesteps amount to the same. Sure, I’ve donated clothes and canned foods to the local Goodwill, and made the customary phone calls to friends on the Gulf Coast and from southern Louisiana. Sure, my TV was tuned continuously to the Weather Channel and national news programs for, basically, all of September. And, sure, I had talked extensively with my parents over Thanksgiving about the New Orleans diaspora. But I had not, until recently, made an overt gesture to talk with, or try to directly help, an evacuee, even though thousands are living in Jackson.

I’m not proud of this. In fact, I’m more than a little ashamed.

So, when I found myself at a book signing/reading for Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters last Wednesday, I had a weird sense of Katrina overload. Lemuria’s reading room wasn’t packed, but most of the people in it—including the book’s author—were New Orleans survivors.

For reasons unknown, Piazza made a beeline to me and shook my hand. “So glad to see you here,” he said. “Are you a survivor?”

“No, I’m from here in Jackson,” I said. “I was really intrigued by your book, though, and my friend C. once took a class taught by you on blues in American culture.”

He remembered the class, and then pointed to the books in my hands. “Hey, do you like that guy?”

I had bought that night, along with Piazza’s book, a copy of William H. Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. It’s one of the weirdest, greatest, most challenging books I’ve ever read. I hadn’t seen it in years until that night.

“This is the only one by him I’ve read, but yeah, I like him.”

So we talked about Gass for a while, and life in New Orleans, and sorrow, and overcoming it. We drank beer. People trickled into the room. Some patted Piazza on the back; others offered their own stories of devastation and quiet triumph, of why they’ll return to the city they love. Piazza was warm, outgoing, full of good humor and genuine interest in me and what I had to say. I’ve had less pleasant conversations with people I’ve known for years. I talked to survivors—people whose homes had flooded, people who had been living in hotels and RV trailers for two months, people who were funny in the face in disaster. Occasionally, I added comments, but they were paltry in comparison, so I mostly listened. Soon enough, it was time for the reading.

After a brief introduction, Piazza strode, almost bounced, really, to the podium. I had expectations—a tone of sobriety, maybe some tears, a stentorian voice. I also expected slipshod, craftsman-like writing; after all, the book had been written in six weeks, primed to cash in on the Katrina news crush.

I was wrong on both counts—thank goodness. Piazza is as enthusiastic a reader as he is a conversationalist, and is blessed with a rich, rolling voice. He “read” from the book’s middle section on parades and jazz funerals, and how they symbolize exactly what’s right and wrong about the city. I put “read” in quotes because it was more like a jazz performance, with sudden digressions about bicycle riding in the Crescent City and obscure elaborations on old music, as if certain words had triggered fresh memories. He sang a portion of a Zulu Indians chant song because, well, it needs to be sung to appreciate the full effect. He wasn’t embarrassed at all. He gesticulated and pantomimed when necessary.

Most of all, he effused warmth and affection for his adopted hometown, in a way that was clear-eyed and intelligent. Reading the book later that night, I could hear his voice. The strong presence of Piazza’s personality informs his idiosyncratic love of the city. He’s a music scholar, and so Why New Orleans Matters is colored by Piazza’s remarkable breadth (and depth) of knowledge about the city’s jazz, blues, and pop heritage, and how that heritage has seeped into American culture at-large.

His voice is so strong, in fact, that it perhaps overwhelms the book. Piazza looks at the city almost entirely through the lens of its music, and only occasionally through a broader viewfinder. He mentions A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana at one point, but Piazza doesn’t have the comprehensive understanding of New Orleans and Louisiana that Liebling had. (WNOM reminds me, actually, of Liebling’s terrific but limiting Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, in which he sees the City of Lights almost entirely through a lens focused on its cuisine.) Piazza’s reading made for such amazing digressions, in part, because he didn’t put everything he should have into the book. While the writing isn’t slapdash, Piazza needed more time to digest his pain and hope. Moments of raw, funny beauty are undercut by lukewarm philosophizing. Take this passage about parades:

There is nothing better than standing out there, among friends known and unknown, appreciating the pure thereness and nowness of the moment, which you experienced last year and you hope to experience again next year, a thereness and nowness that hovers above the street level of contingency and passing time, and connects you back to a place that is the ground of being itself.

I didn’t take Piazza to be a clouded ex-hippie but, as I’m reminded by Pride and Prejudice, first impressions ain’t necessarily the best ones. A careful editing job—or even a careful re-reading by the author—would have excised that paragraph. It’s the sort of passage that might work orally, in the same way that Garrison Keillor’s stories are better heard than read, but that dies on the page.

Fortunately, such passages are rare within WNOM. The last twenty pages outlines Piazza’s plan to retake the city, and provides a sharp look at the city’s potential future and beleaguered present. Here is Piazza on Mayor Ray Nagin, pinning down precisely what I found wrong with him directly after Katrina:

From his underplayed, tentative hesitation in ordering evacuation, to his disappearance from the city during the crucial days when he might have been able to visit the Superdome and Convention Center and give the people who elected him a little hope and a sense of what was happening, to his heartfelt but overdue public anger at the federal government’s slow response to the security situation, to his premature inviting of people back into a city with no garbage pickup, spotty electricity, a police department in disarray, no working hospital, and a contaminated water supply, then his rescinding of the invitation, to his laying off of half the city’s labor force only days before his manic announcement of his Las Vegas plan, Mayor Nagin has flailed away at the city’s problems like a blindfolded kid waving a stick at a piñata.

Even that passage, strong as it is, collects dependent clauses and builds on itself like a good speech. It’s meant to be spoken. At the reading, Piazza described the book as “part memoir, part reportage, and part editorial.” WNOM isn’t quite as evenly delineated as Piazza made it sound. The three aspects bleed into each other, and ricochet off each other, in the same way that a sermon does. It’s a text that’s meant to be improvised on and used as a springboard for elaboration.

As a result, Why New Orleans Matters is not a great book, but it is an intriguing, heartfelt one. I bet the audiobook version will be superb.
____________________

Related posts: I wrote about Rob Walker’s Letters from New Orleans in June, and a trip to the Longue View Gardens in September.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Reading, speechifying, loving New Orleans

  1. winter says:

    Very cool post. I bought the other book based on your recommendation. Might hold off a bit on this one.
    There was a quite incisive article on Katrina in yesterday’s NYT that talked about how it is still taboo in New Orleans to suggest that the city might not be completely rebuilt. Sounds to me like it’s destined to become the French Quarter and little else, sort of a Disneyland reincarnation of its previous self.
    Nice post.

  2. Michael says:

    I second Winter’s comment; a nice post. I appreciate the heartfelt manner in which you write about New Orleans, and the vivid way you capture Piazz’a reading. And I wasn’t aware of Gass’ book — gonna have to find a copy of that one.

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