NBCC Award Finalists in Autobiography:Joshua Clark’s “Heart Like Water”


This is the second in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

“HEART LIKE WATER: Surviving Katrina and Life in its Disaster Zone,” Joshua Clark (Free Press).

Katrina, the category 3 hurricane that assaulted New Orleans on August 29,2005, seemed at first to have spared the city. Then came the breech of the levees, Hurricane Rita, and the bitterly insulting lack of federal response.  The aftermath is far from over. The first post-K books were elegies, eulogies, accusations and chronicles. Joshua Clark’s fierce memoir, “Heart Like Water,” reads more like a novel. It begins in the French Quarter, where Clark and his girlfriend hunker down to weather the storm, and evolves into a lyrical and damning witnessing of a city and a populace ravaged and abandoned.

Clark had two essentials for survival in hand—an apartment in an undamaged building on Jackson Square and a bartending background that made him welcome throughout the Quarter. He takes the measure of the alleys and attics and looted shops, the bars and hotels filled with the suddenly homeless. He watches CNN cameras, the FEMA men and Black Hawks, meets rescuers from the NYPD helped by New Orleaneans during 9/11, and files reports on NPR. He breaks up with his girlfriend, dips himself in the warm waters of the Mississippi as the winds of Rita gather fury, and joins the small army of those who help. He drives to Lafitte, to Baton Rouge, to Biloxi and to Magnolia, in Plaquemines Parish, tape recorder in hand, and listens as the survivors tell their stories of horror.

“Heart Like Water” is an angry, comic, revealing and heartbreaking book. Like James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” with which it is akin, its reportage is interwoven with a novelistic narrative undergirded with outrage. Clark, the narrator, is shaped by what he has witnessed. Near the end of the book he makes a vow to continue to document these places “for as many years as it takes, to see exactly what will grow from this new American landscape.”

As Richard Ford, an NBCC finalist in fiction last year,puts it, “The pure verbal energy and steely clarity of Joshua Clark’s account of outlasting Hurricane Katrina makes his book much more than memoir and documentary—both of which it profoundly is. Clark’s narrative rises to the level of being a crucial witness to the city itself—an indictment, indeed, but also a reveling, an elegy, a light forward to survival.”

Once power came back, Clark set up a fund to help New Orleans area writers affected by the storm, the Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support or KARES and reprinted “French Quarter Fiction,” the anthology he published through his small press, Light of New Orleans Publishing. A portion of sales from that book and from “Heart Like Water” go to that Katrina writers’ fund, which to date has provided grants for dozens of writers.—Jane Ciabattari

Review from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“After the Deluge,” Post-Katrina lit from The Guardian.

Joshua Clark interviewed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review):“The scenes of physical devastation are matched by an uncompromising look at the emotional traumas that unfold in the storm’s aftermath, yet through it all, Clark never fully abandons his sense of the absurd.”

Kirkus Reviews: “…After a short period of ‘school’s out’ giddiness, Clark’s reportage acquires a steady undercurrent of rage, directed at, among other things, the government’s tail-chasing, bureaucratically driven failure to take care of its citizens in a timely manner; the bully-boy tactics of some of the official personnel dispatched to maintain ‘order’ in the devastation; the misinformation and confusion sown by the rapacious national news media; and the short-sighted environmental policies that left New Orleans vulnerable to such calamity in the first place….An important and impassioned document of unimaginable tragedy…”