Has anyone written the Great Novel of New Orleans? If not, Nathaniel Rich’s sprawling, funny, tragic, generous new work, King Zeno, comes close. It reminded this reviewer of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, with its clever melding of real and fictional events, its snippets of newspaper articles and astonishingly memorable characters.
Like the U.S.A. novels, the action in King Zeno takes place around the time of World War I. An axe murderer is preying on Italian grocers and their families, and sometimes tosses what’s left of them into the dig site for the Industrial Canal. Sicilian-born Beatrice Vizzini is bankrolling the construction of the canal, which will connect the Mississippi with Lake Pontchartrain. (The canal is real; Beatrice is fictional.) The imperious Beatrice is ever worried about her son, Giorgio, a hulking brute who is probably not as stupid as he wants everyone to think he is.
Detective Bill Bastrop is on the Axman case. He is just back from the trenches and suffering from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. More than this, he shot an innocent man suspected of being a robber—though this wasn’t taken very seriously, as the man was African-American. On the other side of town, Isadore “King” Zeno is a young man who can play a fierce cornet but has a pregnant wife and mother-in-law to support. The money just isn’t rolling in—until it is, thanks to a prank that he almost regrets.
Eventually, Bill and Isadore, Beatrice and Giorgio find themselves tangled in the Axman’s mayhem. Rich not only knows these folks and their loved ones, but he also knows New Orleans. He loves the honky-tonks, cathouses and bayous, the names of its streets and even the fetid mud and miasmic summer heat. He is cognizant of the city’s racial hierarchies, which may not be as brutal as those in neighboring Mississippi but still have the power to crush young black men. Readers will genuinely worry for Isadore and his friends, ever threatened by this sledgehammer of racism. Because of this, the ending is a nail-biter—with a twist.
King Zeno is the New Orleans novel we’ve been waiting for.