New Orleans Noir
Unlike every other volume of short stories I've read, none of the stories in this book disappointed me. Written by authors who live or have lived in the Big Easy, New Orleans Noir digs below the surface and into the social fabric of a city that had its troubles long before Hurricane Katrina. To say that it pushes the reader out of her comfort zone would be a major understatement.
The collection is divided into two parts: pre- and post- Katrina. Each of the 18 stories is set in a different neighborhood in the city. In Part I, "Before the Levees Broke," the reader travels from a modern day bar in Mid-City to a brothel in the Swamp in 1833, and back again. Characters range from a burnt-out police detective who helps a colleague get away with murder; to a former slave who is a doctor, but must support himself by playing piano in the pre-civil war South; to a seemingly innocent female co-ed who, with a friend, lures a man to his death during Mardi Gras.
Part II, "Life in Atlantis," is equally grim, with more looting, murder and death. The common theme in both parts is, essentially, violence; whether it's a shady real estate hound getting burned to death or a ten-year-old who bleeds to death in a cemetery after shooting at the police, the stories tear at your gut. Racial tension and discrimination, before and after the hurricane, is also a recurring and important theme. Significantly, it's not always easy to determine who is or isn't justified in their actions; I found myself sympathizing with both cops and thieves.
Despite the fact that this collection is gritty, often bloody and frequently depressing, it's a fascinating portrayal of a city that has always had social troubles ignored by the rest of the country. In that it is a call to action.
Another reason to get buy this book: a portion of the sales support the New Orleans Public Library and K.A.R.E.S., which awards grants to writers affected by Hurricane Katrina. Despite all that they had gone through, many of the writers waived their fees to make this possible.