I spent the summer reading James Lee Burke, this country's greatest living crime novelist. In the wake of the four year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it's Burke's Tin Roof Blowdown that's among the most elegiac looks at the disaster that claimed almost 2000 lives.
Blowdown, Burke's 16th Dave Robicheaux novel, finds the tragically flawed detective at the epicenter of the fateful storm. In scenes straight out of the apocalypse, we witness its devastating aftermath:
"They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquemines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead. They died in hospitals and nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest."
Plot-wise, Robicheaux is tasked with tracking down a junkie priest who has gone missing in the Ninth Ward, as well as trying to solve the racially motivated sniper shooting of a group of black looters. Like all of Burke's books, Blowdown is a tightly wrapped mystery that'll leave you guessing until the very end, but the plot of the book is simply a vehicle for Burke to deliver his requiem to New Orleans:
"Perhaps the city has found its permanence inside its own demise, like Atlantis, trapped forever under the waves, the sun never harsh, filtered through the green tint of the ocean so that neither rust nor moth decay ever touches its face."
Just as Burke eulogizes; New Orleans was never just a location on a map. It was a state of mind, a mood, a standalone mythical land. Of course you can still order a Beignet at the Café du Monde or ride the St. Charles Streetcar to the Garden District but, I promise you, it won't feel the same as it did prior to Katrina.
My fondest memories of the Big Easy reside in O'Flaherty's Irish Channel Pub on Toulouse Street. I could sit there for hours on end listening to Danny O'Flaherty's music and mirth; absorbed in the ethos of the city.
With the spirit of New Orleans washed out to sea, O'Flaherty's shuttered its doors after Katrina, leaving another corpse to a city that truly celebrated death.