After reading the two glowing reviews of Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orelans by Dan Baum in the New York Times (1 and 2), I drove to my nearest bookseller to scoop up a copy before they were all gone. I knew that I was reading something special when the book’s three page preface gave as compelling a snapshot of the mysteries of New Orleans as I’ve ever read. I asked my mother who was visiting at the time to check out the preface, and she ended up mailing the book back to me a week later. Once the book was back in my hands, it remained in my mitts until I read the last page. Nine Lives is a gripping account of the City of New Orleans that pulls the reader in and won’t let go.
You should know this going in: “Nine Lives is not a Katrina book,” according to the author. Baum covered Hurricane Katrina for The New Yorker magazine, including an excellent story on the NOPD’s breakdown after the hurricane. The author later moved to New Orleans and wrote daily missives for The New Yorker’s post-Katrina blog, New Orleans Journal, which was well received by New Orleanians. Based on these experiences, the author set out to write Nine Lives, which is so much more than a collection of hurricane-related sob stories.
The book begins in 1965 in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy. Over the next 300+ pages, Baum weaves together the stories of nine disparate, but weirdly representative, New Orleanians. The stories of each of the nine is based upon hours and hours of interviews that Baum conducted with the subjects and their friends, family, and co-workers. Though written in the third person (with one exception), each account is presented in what is essentially the subject’s own words. Dan Baum the interviewer is nowhere to be seen on the page. There are no editorial comments, no expository explanations of geography/language/culture, or other diversions from the narratives of Baum’s chosen nine. It’s an achievement that Baum was able to contain the book to just over 300 pages. A writer without Baum’s sense of the essential could easily have made Nine Lives a 1000 page doorstop.
The author is quick to point out in the preface:
These nine people do not all end up sitting on the same flooded rooftop. Nothing in New Orleans is ever that tidy…[but they] share a common problem: how to live in a place that by the rules of modern America has no right to exist. In the context of the techno-driven, profit-crazy, hyperefficient self-image of the United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of disobedience.
It’s this essential riddle that Baum sought to solve by undertaking this book: why are New Orleans’ citizens so happy in and devoted to what is by most objective measures one of the worst cities in America. It has a terrible education system, political corruption, high unemployment, high crime, and on and on. What Baum reveals through these stories is a people’s connection of place through a wonderfully unique and very strong local culture.
Katrina doesn’t rear her ugly head until the book is into its final hundred pages. By the time the storm hits, the reader has been presented with as complete a portrait of the city in all of its imperfect glory as one is likely to find. There is a context for the disaster to crash into, and real lives are impacted – each one in a different way. Baum doesn’t go in for cheap theatrics or maudlin sentimentality in the aftermath of the storm, real life is dramatic enough. The book is dedicated to “the people of New Orleans,” but it is not overly deferential nor a book length puff piece on a tragic city. Baum does not shy away from shining a harsh light on the city’s many failings, but he does it in a way that demonstrates that he understands the complexity of the society that has evolved there and with a great respect for her people.
This is an incredible book, and it deserves a wide audience. I was so impressed with Nine Lives that I felt compelled to contact the author to see if he would consider being subjected to a BGB interview. Baum graciously accepted the invitation, and I immediately began trying to pare my questions down to a manageable number. I could have talked to the author about this book for days on end. Tune in tomorrow for my interview with Dan Baum.
Bonus points: The cover photo is by photographer Frank Relle who is known for his eerily lit nightscapes of New Orleans. Read Relle’s interview with Times-Picayune reporter Chris Rose here, and be sure to check out his online gallery.