The literature of New Orleans, like its food, its holidays and its weather, is in a class by itself: think Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, Anne Rice, Ellen Gilchrist. Two of its native daughters debut this month with fiction rooted in a deep knowledge of the place and its culture. C. Morgan Babst’s novel, “The Floating World” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 370 pp., $26.95), is the most striking New Orleans novel inspired by Hurricane Katrina so far, a story as complex and nonlinear as the map of the Crescent City, interweaving the troubles caused by the storm with the specific difficulties one family already faced before the first raindrop fell.
The Boisdoré family is interracial in a way that’s uniquely New Orleans: a Creole artist descended from freed slaves married to a white Garden District psychiatrist whose mother went to the supermarket with white gloves on. Joe and Tess have two daughters, Del and Cora. Del lives in New York and works at a museum. Cora, still in New Orleans, struggles with mental illness and depression; she dates a black man named Troy. When the evacuation begins, Joe and Tess leave for Houston, taking Joe’s father, who has advanced Lewy body dementia. The institution he was in before the storm has shut down and won’t be an option when they return. Cora however, refuses to leave with her parents — and can’t be located for so long after they get back that they fear the worst.
By the time Del is able to get down to the city in October, her parents are officially separated and Cora has been found, traumatized and catatonic. Most of the narrative is devoted to finding out what happened to her in the days after landfall, and the answer involves Troy and his extended family, possibly murder, definitely arson.
If the story is sometimes overcomplicated, the writing never falters; take, for example, this description of Tess and Joe’s early romance: “[He] was seduced by her to start with because she reminded him of his city, of the luxurious wetness of a tropical summer, that dangerous fertility and somnolence, the smells of jasmine and oak and varnish and green peppers frying, the delicious languor of the days.”
That unmistakable New Orleans feel also permeates Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s novel, “A Kind of Freedom” (Counterpoint, 256 pp., $26). Sexton cycles among the stories of three generations of a black New Orleans family.
She begins in 1944 with Evelyn, a teenager who has just come out at a debutante ball, walking home with her sister from classes at Dillard University. “It was still early February, and the winter air hadn’t lost its chill. Still all the Seventh Ward girls congregated after school outside Dufon’s oyster shop, the best Negro owned restaurant in the city, and smoked.”
She is about to meet Renard, a boy from a poorer neighborhood, to whom her doctor father will strenuously object. The story follows Renard to war, where he suffers the unique ironies of a soldier defending a country that considers him less than a full citizen.
In the second narrative, set in 1986, Evelyn and Renard’s daughter Jackie has a new baby, but has recently lost her pharmacist husband, Terry, to crack. She’s living in the projects, nursing little T.C., trying desperately to hang on to her job at a day care center. When Terry returns, clean and sober, she braves the fury of her family and takes him back.
In the summer of 2010, post-Katrina, that very boy, T.C., will be getting out of prison just in time for the birth of his own son, whose mother will have nothing to do with T.C. unless he cleans up his act. Surely, he thinks, he can do one last deal before he takes his Aunt Ruby’s offer of work in her law office. By the time T.C. reaches this crossroads, the destruction of the family’s hopes by the relentless action of systemic racism is almost complete: in three generations, they’ve gone from a nice upper middle-class home and debutante balls to subsidized housing in the projects and jail. What doesn’t change is the dream that the next generation, now a little boy named Malik, will have a better chance.
Sad, proud, provocative and quietly educational, with dialogue that credibly spans 70 years of black New Orleans vernacular, “A Kind of Freedom” begs for a screen adaptation. You wait and see.