First of all, has it been almost 15 years since Hurricane Katrina? Feels like yesterday. This book gave me some bad flashbacks and I’ve never lived anywhere near New Orleans. My God, did this country fail the residents of that city.
Secondly, I tried reading this one several times. It always ends up on every “You Have To Read This!!!” list of mysteries. Every time I saw it, I kept wanting it to be different from the book I tried before. Again and again I gave this a shot. It’s quirky, it’s a mystery, it’s set in New Orleans. Every time, my mind rejected it. Grann’s style did not work for me.
But last year, I read Dope. And it was such a heartbreaking work of noir-soaked brevity that I knew then and there I would have to grit my teeth and plow through Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.
And wouldn’t you know it? Fourth (maybe 5th? maybe more?) time is the charm.
I think what worked for me is I had a better understanding of Sara Grann’s voice in this book and that made me appreciate what she is trying to do here. This is a mystery novel and a character study, a satire and a noir, a tale of humor and sorrow, of complex humans that do terrible things but are still capable of goodness yet not redemption. It’s New Orleans to its goshdamn core, getting every contradiction of the Crescent City correct down to the bones. It treats its black characters and their respective plights with seriousness and honesty, sans condescension. It’s Gen X on acid. I kept imagining Janeane Garofalo as the protagonist.
It’s a lot of things and when I started it before, I didn’t understand how Grann was unpacking those things. I thought the voice of the character, coupled with the flashbacks, didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t get settled. But now, I’m older, wiser. I went into this knowing Grann had a book that worked for me (Dope) and if I was patient, it would work. And it did, in ways better than I could have hoped for.
I didn’t like the ending for reasons I can’t get into too much. I felt like Grann did a good job of sussing systemic injustice until the conclusion. But otherwise, this is a great book, one of the best things I’ve read in the beginning of this year.