Book Review: 2008 Texas Book Festival

It's the strength and sanctity of New Orleans and its denizens that stick in this new novel

2008 Texas Book Festival

City of Refuge

by Tom Piazza
HarperCollins, 416 pp., $24.95

As a chronicler of life in New Orleans, before and after Hurricane Katrina, author and critic Tom Piazza made his mark with Why New Orleans Matters, a cultural history of the Crescent City. Now, Piazza is back with a novel that elaborates on his earlier nonfiction. Like Katrina itself, the new novel shows us that the story of New Orleans and its residents is an indelibly American tale. Characters uprooted by Katrina must relocate physically, mentally, and spiritually in the storm's aftermath. Documented elsewhere, this fictional retelling of real-world events has great strength, tracing the lives of New Orleanians – both native and adopted, both black and white.

The main focus is on two men and their families. An apparent stand-in for author Piazza is Craig Donaldson, a white Midwestern transplant to New Orleans. An editor at a fictional alternative weekly, Donaldson is a well-meaning fellow with simmering marital troubles. The author, to his credit, does not shy from racial themes. In turn, we meet S.J. Williams, an African-American widower and a carpenter who lives nearby to his ne'er-do-well sister Lucy and his nephew Wesley in the Lower 9th Ward. Donaldson's thoughts and feelings are made explicit, and his domestic woes allow for a running debate over the worth of New Orleans, yet the character remains an incomplete creation. By contrast, Williams emerges a compelling figure. He poignantly observes: "People can't understand what it was to be there. Even people who want to can't get it. There was a wound."

The most indelible character, however, is not a person but New Orleans itself. As Piazza recapitulates the wounds suffered across this urban melting pot, it's the strength and sanctity of the city and its denizens that stick. It's a portrait no reader will soon forget.

Evoking a Sense of Place Saturday, Nov. 1, 11:30am-12:30pm
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