Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Blake Bailey

By Jane Ciabattari

This is the fourth in our series about New Orleans writers. It's hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. NBCC finalist and author of A Tragic Honesty, a biography of Richard Yates, Blake Bailey moved to New Orleans shortly before Katrina hit, and lost everything. He has been writing about his experiences for Slate (see his anniversary piece in Slate, posted today, here). Here is what he had to tell Critical Mass about the changes in his life and the progress of his biography of John Cheever.

I've written so exhaustively about my Katrina experience
for Slate that I depress (and bore) myself, so I will try to look on the
bright side for a moment. First of all I think it's a splendid coincidence
that I had completed research on my Cheever biography and transcribed
every last note to my laptop exactly five days before Katrina hit. This
was pretty crucial, since my paper research wasn't very portable and
we had to bug out in a hurry. When I returned to our flooded house, a
month later, my copy of Cheever's journal (four linear feet) was
solid mold.

Another good augury: my final interview–in mid-August, I
think–was with Cheever's oncologist, who was having lunch with a friend
when I first called his cell phone. Later, after our second or third
interview, the oncologist remarked: “I hesitate to mention this, Blake,
since you might think i'm a flake or something…” (“No no!” I interjected.
“Go ahead! not at all!”) “… well–okay. That first time
you called me? On my cell? Well, the friend I was with is a psychic, and
I told him that John [Cheever] had meant a lot to me and I sort of hesitated
about whether I should talk to you or not. I mean personal stuff and so
on. And my friend–the psychic–said: 'John is here. At the table.
He's telling me it's okay. He's telling me that everything's going to turn
out for the best … '”

So there you have it: a benediction from beyond the grave, and this only a week or so before Katrina (though perhaps Cheever's ghost was just being puckish).

We now live in Gainesville, FL, where my wife just finished her Ph.D.(clinical psych) a couple weeks ago. My baby daughter turned two this summer and I can only hope the ten weeks she lived in New Orleans is, by now, a dream. I'm more or less on schedule with my Cheever book, a draft of which is due at Knopf by December 2007. Meanwhile thinking and writing about Cheever–that most ecstatic and miserable of men–is a fine antidote to the evacuee blues.