Now, two years in, perhaps the most emotionally vivid account of those terrible days, and of the ghastly failures and neglect that followed, is not written by a news reporter, but by Louisiana-located mystery novelist, James Lee Burke, who sets his most recent book, The Tin Roof Blowdown, against the backdrop of the period during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina.
I recommend the book as a great end-of-summer read, but—because of the interweave of the hurricane into the tapestry of the narrative—it’s also much more than that.
Burke is known for his ability to write about his characters’ struggles against sin and for redemption with a poetic and Faulknerian flair. But, this time, his prose is also laced with torrents of sorrow and rage at what has happened to the city that he often used to describe as “The Great Whore of Babylon.” Now he writes, ““New Orleans was a song that went under the waves.”
He poses the essential questions of the storm’s aftermath, not through political tirades, but through simple scenes occurring offhandedly in the narrative, like one in which Burke’s shadow-haunted protagonist/cop, Dave Robicheaux, comes upon an old man trolling through the rubble of his house looking for his drowned wife: “How come nobody come for us?” the man says, his words soft, directed everywhere and nowhere.
Or to give you another, more empassioned example, here’s how the book opens:
My worst dreams have always contained images of brown water and fields of
elephant grass and the downdraft of helicopter blades. The dreams are in
color but they contain no sound, not of drowned voices in the river or the
explosions under the hooches in the village we burned or the thropping of
the Jolly Green and the gunships coming low and flat across the canopy,
like insects pasted against a molten sun.
In the dream I lie on a poncho liner, dehydrated with blood expander, my
upper thigh and side torn by wounds that could have been put there by
wolves. I am convinced I will die unless I receive plasma back at
battalion aid. Next to me lies a Negro corporal, wearing only his trousers
and boots, his skin coal-black, his torso split open like a gaping red
zipper from his armpit down to his groin, the damage to his body so
grievous, traumatic, and terrible to see or touch he doesn’t understand
what has happened to him.
“I got the spins, Loot. How I look?” he says.
“We’ve got the million-dollar ticket, Doo-doo. We’re Freedom Bird bound,”
His face is crisscrossed with sweat, his mouth as glossy and bright as
freshly applied lipstick when he tries to smile.
The Jolly Green loads up and lifts off, with Doo-doo and twelve other
wounded on board. I stare upward at its strange rectangular shape, its
blades whirling against a lavender sky, and secretly I resent the fact
that I and others are left behind to wait on the slick and the chance that
serious numbers of NVA are coming through the grass. Then I witness the
most bizarre and cruel and seemingly unfair event of my entire life.
As the Jolly Green climbs above the river and turns toward the China Sea,
a solitary RPG streaks at a forty-five-degree angle from the canopy below
and explodes inside the bay. The ship shudders once and cracks in half,
its fuel tanks blooming into an enormous orange fireball. The wounded on
board are coated with flame as they plummet downward toward the water.
Their lives are taken incrementally – by flying shrapnel and bullets, by
liquid flame on their skin, and by drowning in a river. In effect, they
are forced to die three times. A medieval torturer could not have devised
a more diabolic fate.
When I wake from the dream, I have to sit for a long time on the side of
the bed, my arms clenched across my chest, as though I’ve caught a chill
or the malarial mosquito is once again having its way with my metabolism.
I assure myself that the dream is only a dream, that if it were real I
would have heard sounds and not simply seen images that are the stuff of
history now and are not considered of interest by those who are determined
to re-create them.
I also tell myself that the past is a decaying memory and that I do not
have to relive and empower it unless I choose to do so. As a recovering
drunk, I know I cannot allow myself the luxury of resenting my government
for lying to a whole generation of young men and women who believed they
were serving a noble cause. Nor can I resent those who treated us as
oddities if not pariahs when we returned home.
When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have
to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the
betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.
But that was before Katrina. That was before a storm with greater impact
than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern
Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western
Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.
I listened to The Tin Roof Blowdown on my iPod all the way to Montana. I’m tempted to listen to it all over again, as I drive back home.