Death and Life in New Orleans
By Dan Baum
Spiegel & Grau, Hardcover, 9780385523196, 352pp.
Publication Date: February 10, 2009
The hidden history of a haunted and beloved city told through the intersecting lives of nine remarkable characters
After Hurricane Katrina, Dan Baum moved to New Orleans to write about the city’s response to the disaster for The New Yorker. He quickly realized that Katrina was not the most interesting thing about New Orleans, not by a long shot. The most interesting question, which struck him as he watched residents struggling to return, was this: Why are New Orleanians—along with people from all over the world who continue to flock there—so devoted to a place that was, even before the storm, the most corrupt, impoverished, and violent corner of America?
Here’s the answer. Nine Lives is a multivoiced biography of this dazzling, surreal, and imperiled city through the lives of nine characters over forty years and bracketed by two epic storms: Hurricane Betsy, which transformed the city in the 1960’s, and Katrina, which nearly destroyed it. These nine lives are windows into every strata of one of the most complex and fascinating cities in the world. From outsider artists and Mardi Gras Kings to jazz-playing coroners and transsexual barkeeps, these lives are possible only in New Orleans, but the city that nurtures them is also, from the beginning, a city haunted by the possibility of disaster. All their stories converge in the storm, where some characters rise to acts of heroism and others sink to the bottom. But it is New Orleans herself—perpetually whistling past the grave yard—that is the story’s real heroine.
Nine Lives is narrated from the points of view of some of New Orleans’s most charismatic characters, but underpinning the voices of the city is an extraordinary feat of reporting that allows Baum to bring this kaleidoscopic portrait to life with brilliant color and crystalline detail. Readers will find themselves wrapped up in each of these individual dramas and delightfully immersed in the life of one of this country’s last unique places, even as its ultimate devastation looms ever closer. By resurrecting this beautiful and tragic place and portraying the extraordinary lives that could have taken root only there, Nine Lives shows us what was lost in the storm and what remains to be saved.
DAN BAUM is a former staff writer for The New Yorker, and has written for numerous other magazines and newspapers. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
“Nine Lives reaches for, and grasps, an astonishing range of experience in New Orleans. In tracing the paths of these lives over decades, and across the lines of age, race, class, and gender, it gives an essential perspective on what was lost, and found, by the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Dan Baum doesn’t live in New Orleans, but New Orleans lives in him, and on every page of this harrowing, compassionate book.”—Tom Piazza, author of City of Refuge and Why New Orleans Matters
“Nine Lives is stunning work. Dan Baum has immersed himself in New Orleans, the most fascinating city in the United States, and illuminated it in a way that is as innovative as Tom Wolfe on hot rods and Truman Capote on a pair of murderers. Full of stylistic brilliance and deep insight and an overriding compassion, Nine Lives is an instant classic of creative nonfiction.”—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
“Dan Baum writes with grace and heart in this extraordinary homage to that most beautiful and broken of America’s cities, New Orleans. This is an important American story, and Dan Baum has done a wonderful thing in telling it.”—Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and The Fall of Baghdad
“Dan Baum tests the power of a very haunting place to bring these beautifully crafted narratives into a coherent whole—and New Orleans comes through with soulful aplomb. Nine Lives is a masterful portrait of a fragile American outpost between two terrible storms.” —Jed Horne, author of Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City
“Nine Lives may be this young year’s most artful and emotionally resonating nonfiction book so far, and for that, to Mr. Baum, a belated New Year’s toast.”—New York Times
“Brilliantly reported… Compassionate and clear-eyed, Nine Lives brings you into the heart of an American tragedy.” —People, four stars
“A splendid book… Baum continually serves up wonderful detail and phrasing… People in Nine Lives sometimes use the phrase “You feel me?” the way other people say “You understand?” If Baum had employed these words as the last line of his book, as a question about everything he’s told us, the answer would be a firm, appreciative yes.”—New York Times Book Review
"Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans is one of the most moving—and riveting—books ever written about the rich and complicated life we live here." —Times-Picayune