OH WHAT A BEAUTIFULLY TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE
Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans
by Dan Baum
Nine Lives is yet another stirring and beautiful book about New Orleans that will captivate and mesmerize you from the opening page. This book delivers exactly what the title promises, 9 separate life stories that are woven together to read like a novel, though these are actually people whom Dan Baum met while covering Katrina for the New Yorker. Some of the lives intersect casually, some intimately, and some never meet at all. They all come from different walks of life and varying social strata in different parts of town, yet Baum recognized that each had an amazing story to tell and by combining them, he tells the history of the city starting with Hurricane Betsy and winding through the post-Katrina recovery.
This is the genius of the novel. Although unrelated, the characters lives fit together naturally, revealed in brief interwoven snippets to make Nine Lives read like a cleverly contrived novel. Although each story would be engaging on its own, this is truly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Yet, while all these characters have extraordinary lives filled with amazing twists and turns, nothing is wrapped up so neatly in the end as with fiction.
Baum managed to coax amazing honesty from his subjects, as well as the friends and family that also sat for interviews, so this is a ‘warts and all’ portrayal. Some difficult emotional, political, and racial issues come to light and Baum never draws easy conclusions for the reader.
There’s the coroner who left a cushy life as a wealthy gynecologist, yet did he turn a blind eye to police brutality? There’s the Uptown businessman who made millions on a tax contract that comes under fire for cronyism and who favored the integration of Rex, yet leaves you wondering at times, though not certain, if his awareness isn’t insulated by his wealth and Uptown status. And then there’s one narrative told in first person of a displaced ex-con with street smarts and a direct wit andwisdom that will spark debates regarding government aide and social responsibility versus entitlement. In an age of didactic news broadcasts and shouted opinions masquerading as fact, it’s nice to have complex issues presented for discussion rather than spoon-fed and oversimplified.
Yet while Baum exposes their flaws, none of these characters appear flawed. They are simply richly and honestly human. Baum writes with great empathy and respect for his subjects, affording them a certain nobility while rendering the city of New Orleans the primary character through their prism with all the diversity and weirdness one would expect. In addition to the three mentioned above, there’s the wife of the great Mardi Gras Indian Chief who brought peace to the streets, a laborer from the Lower Ninth Ward who helped organize the first second line club his beloved neighborhood as he watches it become corrupted by drugs and violence, a high school band teacher who becomes father to a thousand kids with absent parents, a member of NOPD who is broken and nearly killed on the job yet soldiers on until his love of policing is finally broken by the horrors of Katrina, a bright young woman whose lone indiscretion leaves her pregnant and delays her plans to lift herself out of poverty by decades, and a transsexual who grows up seen publicly as a crushing football player but who privately can’t resist dressing in his mother’s clothing when left alone.
In the end, all of these stories will touch and amaze you, and you will walk away feeling as connected to them as Baum did, for most of these are people who stumbled upon by happenstance during his coverage. In the afterward, he claims to have boiled down close to a million words from notes and interviews into this 120,000 page book. Great books often awe me, but rarely do they leave me perplexed, yet I can’t wrap my mind around how Baum so naturally wove these nine wildly diverging tangents to feel like a coherent whole. It’s a monumental task.
I’ve written often about the limitations of histories to provide a layered picture of this city of wonder and contradiction, but in Nine Lives, Dan Baum presents a broad, in-depth, and engaging portrait of this singular place. It’s a highly recommended read.