Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Jason Berry (Part I)

By Jane Ciabattari

This is the ninth in our occasional series about New Orleans writers. It's hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. A New Orleans native, Jason Berry went to Jesuit High School and Georgetown University. His first book, published with an assist from Walker Percy, was “Amazing Grace: With Charles Evers in Mississippi,” based on his time as a volunteer in Evers’s gubernatorial campaign. After a stretch in Europe, he moved into a $75-a-month apartment in the Irish Channel in 1973 and began freelancing. He has spent most of the time since then in New Orleans, writing about local politics and culture. In 1992 his third book, “Lead Us Not into Temptation” (Doubleday), an investigation of clergy child sexual abuse, generated national attention. He describes his seventh book and first novel, “Last of the Red Hot Poppas,” as “a story of the petrochemical age, the era from the end of civil rights through the resurging oil wealth of the 1990s.” Rex LaSalle, the governor in the novel, he says, was inspired by Edwin Edwards, the flashy Cajun who was elected four times and now holds an endowed chair in a federal penitentiary (casinos: extortion.) “But had there never been an Edwards, I would have invented a character with similar traits – the rogueish charm, flamboyance and telegenic skills – to personify the evolution of demagoguery since the days of those country warhorses before TV. I wrote a fair number of magazine and newspaper pieces about various politicians and the legislature, which in the 1980s would have tested Fellini’s imagination. Most of the characters in the novel are not based on real people. The state of Louisiana is the central character.”

Berry wrote of his Katrina experiences for The National Catholic Reporter: “Hemingway called courage 'grace under pressure.' I have seen that grace in great display these terrifying days, grace entwined with another kind of valor: the realization that in order to be brave, you must first be afraid.My wife, Melanie McKay, and I left our house in the Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans to ride out the storm with my brother, Lamar, and his family in Covington, La., a leafy town across Lake Pontchartrain, 50 miles north of the city.” I talked with Jason about what has happened since then.

Q. Two days before Katrina, you and your wife headed to Covington, then spent seven weeks in Louisiana and Texas before returning home in late October. When you think back now, what were those months like for you? Personally, professionally?

A. It was surreal agony. In Covington I didn’t see TV for five days, though I heard a lot of radio. I spent most of that time cutting trees where we were hemmed in. When we finally saw TV, in New Iberia, I felt a fathmoless anger at the sight of the city beaten, trashed, the abandonment of those people in the flood and nothing I could do. We were stuck like nomads in the other places you mention. I had responsibilities to help my mother, my wife and my daughter get situated. Even before I learned that our house had not flooded, watching the destruction on TV made me feel powerless. I landed some work for ABC News. I also had bad poison ivy after the chain saw work in Covington. Soon along a doctor put me on steroids. It killed the rash but I couldn’t sleep. I was a zombie, drinking too much to try to sleep, waking up at 4 AM after dreaming about bloated corpses, then glued to the internet, trying to reconnect with friends. It was a nightmare.

Q. What are your living and working conditions like compared to pre-Katrina?

A. My house did not flood, and that’s the line of demarcation. My working conditions are fine; the home office is in good shape. I pay $225 a month for a storage unit and still haven’t gotten all of the priest files out there. I have so much material for the work in progress that it would take three days to box and move all that should another hurricane hit. We’re going to California for vacation this summer and I’m praying we don’t get hit again. That is the biggest change, the mental vistas, the anxiety in following weather news. I get up at 5.30,make coffee, read the papers in the solarium, look at the green plants outside and wonder if a flood will come. Every day I wonder. People all over the city think the same thing. For a year or so I had these daydream interruptions — water breaking through the wall, the books and art works going down. Yet I can’t underscore how fortunate we are to have a house intact. Everyone is dealing with skyrocketing home insurance costs. Life here has gotten much more expensive.

Just about every night I hear police sirens out there, somewhere. Our neighborhood has not had a serious crime, but New Orleans leads America in homicides; young drug dealers fight for shrinking turf. The police department is a mess. So is Mayor Nagin’s recovery plan. Half of the population is gone, and many of those people did not live in the Lower Ninth Ward. Whole areas of Gentilly and Lakeview – standard-issue middle and upper middle class neighborhoods – are shells, houses with waterlines yet to be repaired. It’s a national scandal, though the media have tired of pointing the figure at Bush and Congress. The media packed off when Nagin won his reelection by snookering blacks into supporting him as a born-again African-American. Nagin lunged from one recovery plan to another, failed to bring in the funds we need to rebuild, and blames everyone but himself. Now, with a big boost from Jesse Jackson, he is reinventing himself as a black liberal, when in fact he’s a social Darwinist toward his own folk. Jackson played a big role getting displaced blacks to come back and vote for Nagin. I watch all this amidst and try to stay focused on my work. It is not easy.

My wife Melanie is a professor of English at Loyola; many of her friends and colleagues have left, which has been hard on her and others, including me. It’s sad to see those people and others I know move on. My buddy Michael Tisserand, the Gambit Weekly editor, moved to Evanston; his wife, a pediatrician, worked here for a guy whose Uptown practice was wiped out. The guy committed suicide. I played baseball as a kid with that fellow. Steveson Palfi, a filmmaker I knew, killed himself too. These losses add up. And yet on the other side, the music continues, and each time I see people in a restaurant or the park or at some cultural event, one feels the common soul, a commitment to the great texture of this city, a place betrayed by politicians yet alive with culture because of the social mosaic.

There is also a more genuine civic activism, people across lines of class and race pitching in and trying to help than ever before and such little political leadership. The vacuum of politics here will become a case study in post-disaster response literature. That is the hardest part of living here, the collective feeling of drift, the stupidity of governance.

Tomorrow see Part II of “Thinking About New Orleans #9,” with Jason Berry's thoughts on whether New Orleans will survive the next five years, and how the city's musicians are doing now.