Given that James Lee Burke has drawn the map of coastal Louisiana for so many readers, it’s no surprise that he would have to chronicle the changes wrought by the unnatural disaster that was Katrina. The surprise in reading this book for me wasn’t that he musters all of his descriptive power to describe the tragedy that befell New Orleans – I expected that, and he delivers – but that his story, so often a larger-than-life tapestry of history and human greed and Burke’s own electrically-charged poetry, is a network of interlocking accidents, small tragedies that intersect in the chaos left behind.
The knot at the center of it all is Bernand Melancon, a young man from the ninth ward, who makes two fatal mistakes: with his brother and a cohort he loots the Garden District home of a well-connected mobster, and he does it in a boat that he stole from a priest who is trying to rescue people trapped in an attic. For one mistake, he may pay with his life; for the other – his soul. And his soul is not so atrophied that he doesn’t realize it. Slipping between first and third person, between reportage and the sort of mythic storytelling that is his metier, Burke proves what he has practiced all along. History is always present, all of our choices are moral ones, and all of us are capable of both great evil and of redemption. The ending is beautifully unfinished, ambiguous, and strangely full of hope, if not for the city that is not a place but a musical form, at least for one young man who “tried to become the person he might have been if he’d had a better shake.”