Saturday, September 12, 2009

City of Refuge

Having just finished reading Tom Piazza's Hurricane Katrina novel, City of Refuge, I'm now spending some quiet time reflecting and recovering. Yes, it is one of those books that engulfs you and leaves you wracked, wrecked. At least it was for me. I've read several reviews that say otherwise, but it seems to me that for the most part the criticism is of the same sort leveled at The Grapes of Wrath, at Steinbeck and Sinclair and Morrison, Zola and Baldwin and Hugo and every other novelist whose fiction takes a stand, exposes social injustice, grabs the reader's heart and squeezes it not with fake sentimentality but with wrenching reality, which is the most honest stuff of story. So I reject the "spare me this overwrought and obviously slanted sob story" critique that is, intentionally or not, reactionary. One of the reviews that took this approach was, shockingly (not!), in the New York Times Book Review.

Now, if the book has been widely criticized by Black reviewers, that of course is a different story and I would stand corrected in my admiration of City of Refuge. But I have not found any African American commentary on this novel.

My own take is straightforward. This is not a radical book. The story of two New Orleans families, one white, one Black, and how Hurricane Katrina hits them, it has many imperfections, political and literary. Among other things, it's too male-centered for my taste. Among a fairly big cast of characters, most of whom are well drawn, the focus is on two protagonists, the paterfamilia of the Williamses and Donaldsons. Why couldn't one of the familia have a mater at its head? Also, the otherwise progressive narrative refers to the horribly exploited and ill-treated undocumented workers brought in afterward as "illegal aliens."

There's more along those lines but they feel like quibbles because my overarching reaction to this book is that it is good and true, deep and necessary, beautifully written, spare in places, in others a shatteringly painful spill of words, all of it successfully getting at the core questions of what happened, how it could have happened, who it mostly happened to, and what it did to them. Although the story gripped me from the first paragraph and I read the book through pretty quickly, there were also several times when I could have read on but had to take a break because it was just too hard. Turned on the TV to numb my mind for a while instead. Had to regroup, gather my strength, before entering again. That's how raw, how dead-on it is.

Maybe I'm wrong. I'm not from and have never lived in the South--I've only been to New Orleans itself once, in 1991, when I spent two weeks there organizing against the Ku Klux Klan gubernatorial candidate David Duke--and I am of course white. All this and more may mean there are nuances of weaknesses in City of Refuge that I failed to grasp. Short of having such pointed out I'll stand by my read, which is that this is a fine, fine novel.

There are currently 32 copies of the original hardcover edition available for only $6.95 at the Strand bookstore. That means it'll soon find its way to the remainders shelves. A damned shame. Katrina was a natural disaster. What it did to New Orleans was a crime. Here is a work of fiction that exposes what happened. It deserves to be read.