Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Valerie Martin

By Jane Ciabattari

It's hard to say how many writers were dislodged, disrupted, and disoriented by Hurricane Katrina and aftermath. I've been keeping track of a number of them through the “Thinking About New Orleans” series. Tonight, the NBCC is sponsoring a reading by and for New Orleans writers at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, with old-fashioned bread pudding from Mara's Homemade offered in exchange for donations to a New Orleans writers' fund, KARES (details here). The six readers are Edgar award-winning novelist Tom Adcock, Joshua Clark, author of the Katrina memoir “Heart Like Water;” Louisiana poet and short story writer Lee Meitzen Grue, award-winning novelist Valerie Martin, author of “Property” and “Trespass,” Edgar award-winning author Julie Smith, and actress and short story writer Kim Sykes. For more New Orleans writers, check out this review by NBCC member Susan Larson , book editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, of “Life in the Wake,” the new NolaFugees anthology just published this weekend. Thanks to Ken Foster, who couldn't make it to New York tonight, for the tip; best wishes to Joe Longo and the other NolaFugees (Joe couldn't make it to New York tonight either).

Valerie Martin is the author of eight novels, including “Property,” which won England's Orange prize, and “Trespass,” which was published in September by Nan Talese, and three collections of short stories. Her ninth novel, “My Emotions,” is due out in 2009. Tonight she will be reading from her 1987 novel, “A Recent Martyr,”which is set in a New Orleans under seige.

As a prelude to the reading, she has offered an excerpt from a piece she wrote for the Financial Times of London on September 2, 2005, only days after Katrina. It brings back the horror Katrina brought, and the dismay at the human failings the storm revealed. ” It explains exactly what my connection to the city is and what I was doing and thinking in the days after Katrina,” she says.

“FEAR AND LAWLESNESS GRIP NEW ORLEANS AS THOUSANDS REMAIN STRANDED IN SQUALOR.” Another New York Times headline. This one feels ironic, as it could have been used to describe the city anytime in the last twenty years or so, especially the last part, about the thousands stranded in squalor. New Orleans is a poor city and the crime rate is notoriously high. A peculiarity of the coverage of hurricane Katrina is the astonishment of the media at the revelation that there are a lot of destitute black people in New Orleans. There they are: squinting into living rooms all across the country, lining up for food, looking for transport out of the hell hole that was once their city, the poor, the huddled, the dispossessed, the people who couldn’t afford to leave. Why is it a surprise that they are black?

I’ve spent the last few days on the phone or in front of the computer screen, looking for people. Friends and family are slowly checking in; so far, so good. All are out of the city, stranded now. When I called one friend a poor, homeless refugee, he said cheerfully, “We’re getting into it.” Another surprise: how many people are planning to relocate after they get back into the city and sell whatever they've got for whatever they can get.

Traditionally, New Orleanians do not leave. Not for college and certainly not for hurricanes. My grandmother, my mother, my sister, and my daughter were all born there. To my chagrin, I was conceived during my family's brief tenure in my father’s hometown, Sedalia, Missouri, but by the time I was three we were back in New Orleans, which Mother never left again. One of the internet photos, among so many that have chilled me in the last few days, shows the mausoleum where my parents are buried. They bought two plots there, side by side, many years ago. I don't like the place; they are not truly under or over ground, but in a concrete lined raised bed with a row of azaleas stuck on top, like a planter. In the photo it is clear that they are now, like the rest of the city, under water.

The last time I lived in New Orleans was 1999, when I took a one-year teaching position at Loyola University. I rented a house on Bayou Saint John, a tranquil ribbon of water that runs off of Lake Pontchatrain, just a block from City Park, home of the “Dueling Oaks” where young gentleman once settled offenses to their honor with fencing foils, and the New Orleans Museum of Art, which has a particularly touching portrait by Degas of his blind New Orleans cousin Adele. The bayou is lined with concrete and a wide stretch of grass where locals walk their dogs of an evening and painters set up their easels on weekends. Late at night, drivers occasionally fail to gauge the wide curve toward Carrolton Ave, jump the low curb, and slide right into the bayou. More than once I had my breakfast on the porch, contemplating the back end of a car poking out of the water, a pelican or a heron perched comfortably on the fender, drying out his wings.

There was a hurricane that year too, brooding and stewing in the Gulf for a few days while it was anyone's guess and everyone's pleasure to predict where it would make landfall. Folks put in wine for the hurricane party. As is sometimes the case, it was generally agreed that this one could be “the big one.” “The big one” has thrived in the civic imagination for as long as I can remember: it will come directly up the Mississippi river, pushing the water into the lake, which will then overflow the levees on two sides and submerge the city. That was the first time I ever heard a call from the mayor for evacuation of the entire city (suggested, not mandatory) and the first time the Super Dome was opened as a “shelter.” Not many people left town, but there was a certain novelty in the idea of spending the night in a stadium, and a few thousand people lined up with their blankets and coolers. As the breezes freshened, and the air bristled and brightened with the charge of positive ions, these citizens filed eagerly inside.

I got into a big argument with my mother about where and how we should weather this storm. She wanted me to come to her condo, or go to my friends' house uptown, anywhere but where I wanted to stay, which was in the house on the bayou. After a dozen phone calls we agreed that I would pick her up and bring her to the house. Because there is a lock at the head of the Bayou, it was less likely to flood there than almost anywhere else in town. We spent a miserable night together, though there was an amusing moment when my neighbor, for whom I had stopped at the liquor store in the afternoon and purchased a good supply of wine, appeared at the door, wild-eyed and soaking wet, waving a check. “If I never see you again,” he said, “I want to pay you for the wine and say thanks.” Mother asked him if he might have any liqueur, as her stomach was upset. He went away and reappeared with a good cognac. The wind whipped up, it rained a lot, the house rattled like an airplane on a runway, but we didn't take off. In the morning I drove Mother home, in spite of the curfew, to find her condo standing high and dry. The mayor tried to persuade the people in the Super Dome to stay put until the streets were dry and clear of debris, but they were having none of it. At length he said he couldn't make them stay, he could only ask them to stay. They left.

Whenever there is a hurricane in the Gulf, I call a few friends to see how the party preparations are going. But for Katrina the evacuation order was mandatory, a first in living memory, and even die-hard Cajuns were taking it seriously, or as seriously as people whose world view is made up in equal parts of cynicism and fatalism can take anything. A local voodoo queen told a reporter she had seen skeletons sitting on their own tombs waving her away. “I’m leaving, Cher,” she said. In a town where, to quote Eudora Welty, “ever'body believes ever'thing spooky,” such a vision was not to be discounted.

Now that, truly, the worst has happened, and an entire city has become a toxic brew of floating bodies, chemical fires, enraged armed thugs, and terrified, starving people abandoned to their fate by every branch of their government, everybody is looking for somebody to blame. There's plenty of blame to go around. Those on the defensive tell lies and then stand stolidly behind them. The most frequently quoted at the moment is the President's disclaimer, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” Apart from the obvious fact that building a levee presupposes the possibility of its being breached, this statement is as blatantly false as his earlier assertion that no one could have anticipated terrorists using planes to attack large buildings. Lots of people could and did. As I write, he is being flown in to the city (maybe he'll wear his flight suit!) where he will take his stand in the flooded airport and bore everyone who isn’t already rigid and bloated with a torrent of repetitive promises and lies.

No one is supposed to ask where the National Guard is, as the answer is well known and rhymes with “attack.” Some in the news media who have walked the streets of the city are losing patience in the face of the political stonewall. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's paean of praise to the administration’s preparedness was interrupted by an angry news anchor who expressed his outrage at the political charade, “because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats.” The current mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, in an interview that ended with both the interviewer and his subject in tears, despaired of getting Federal aid for his decomposing city and sent out a “desperate SOS” to the nation.
The stories coming out of New Orleans are disgraceful and sickening, and they feel like symptoms of something larger and genuinely malignant. Perhaps that's why I find myself thinking about Rome, and that other palace of beauty and art, Venice, which is as fragile and imperiled by its position and its politics as the poor but beautiful city I grew up in and which I love. I’ve been reading Tacitus, who was a shrewd observer of folly. “Though it is true that from the nature of human frailty cure operates more slowly than disease, and as the body itself is slow to grow and quick to decay, so also it is easier to damp men's spirits and their enthusiasm than to revive them; for listlessness itself has a certain subtle charm which comes over us, and the languor we hate at first we learn to love.” The death of New Orleans is both a cause and a result of that hateful languor Tacitus so tellingly describes, and which the citizenry will have to fight through if they are going to rebuild; languor, and the standard obstacles to all civic progress everywhere: ignorance, corruption, graft, and greed.

The fallout from the failure of our government to address a natural catastrophe in a timely manner will be both political and economic, and it is already underway. If any good can come from such a horrific event, it may be in the outrage of the media, who have, for years now, betrayed the trust of the public by circulating lies and supporting morally bankrupt policies. A country that cannot get food and water to its own citizens when they are in dire distress is not a great power. This should be apparent to all, both enemies and friends. Only the mad libertines who cling to power as if for dear life can fail to see, in the belching fire and smoke that blacken the skies over the Dantesque scenes of suffering in New Orleans, that our nation is not more secure, but overextended, desperate, and more vulnerable every day to the fury of the coming storm.

Valerie Martin
2 September 05