Way Down In The Hole

It's been a while since I focused on books here, largely because I'd promised myself that I wouldn't write about books I hadn't finished reading, and I haven't finished much lately. Instead, I've been reading in the fashion of Russian nesting dolls, creating a Choose-Your-Own Cloud-Atlas of my own drifting attentions. A surreal detective novel led me into a Seattle steampunk novel, which skipped into a wickedly thick Victorian suspense novel, all of which wen on hold for a true crime book about a post-Katrina New Orleans murder.

I was led to Ethan Brown's Shake the Devil Off by way of David Simon's new HBO show, Treme, or more specifically the New Orleans Times-Picayune's blogged annotations for Nawlins outsiders. Speculations on two of Treme's characters in comments for recent weeks suggested that they may be based on the victim and perpetrator of a grizzly New Orleans murder-suicide, the subject of Brown's book.

In October of 2006, Zackery Bowen killed himself by jumping off the roof of the Omni hotel in New Orleans. In his pocket was a note directing police back to his apartment, which held the dead and dismembered body of his girlfriend, Addie Hall. Brown tracks Bowen's story from days as an MP in Iraq and as a Katrina hold out in New Orleans through a tempestuous relationship with the presumably bi-polar Hall, and has -- authorially, at least -- a lot of sympathy for Bowen. Brown makes it pretty clear that the war and the military had done Bowen wrong, and makes clear his sense of Bowen's murder/suicide as part of a post-traumattic stress-related psychic break.

It's an interesting book and a quick read, though the murder scene is a particularly grizzly one that is recounted at three separate times throughout the book. Brown makes an attempt to extrapolate past his subject to take a longer view on post-Katrina crime in New Orleans and on Iraq- and Afghanistan-related PTSD. The book is blurbed by several of the writers of Treme, who clearly have utilized some of Brown's theses regarding New Orleans crime and post-Katrina malaise in the early going of the series. Strangely, The Wire and other late, lamented HBO series (John From Cincinnati, how I wish you'd lasted) factor into the narrative in particular ways. As a further spot of synergy, Treme's theme song was written and performed by John Boutte, who lived in the same apartment complex as Bowen and Hall at the time of their murder, and factors as a witness in Brown's book


Speaking of Treme, it is so nice to have David Simon back on television. Treme has all of the tropes of The Wire in play -- the city beseiged by crime and failing social institutions, the principled characters threatened by their own powerlessness, a willingness to explore issues of race and class. In addition, the New Orleans setting allows attention to be paid to music, cuisine, literature, and the kind of artful moments that, at times and in small ways, allow transcendance. So Treme offers -- again, in small and rare ways -- a hopefulness that was mostly absent from The Wire.

David Simon's piety, by which I mean his interest in educating his viewers about his sense of justice or morality or the gap between the way the world works and the way it ought to, is at least as fiercely felt in Treme as it was in The Wire. In the second episode, well-meaning but niave post-Katrina volunteers -- and we know they are niave because they say they are "from Wisconsin" -- are disparaged by certain characters for not knowing the "real" New Orleans, because all they know of New Orleans is the French Quarter, "When the Saints Go Marching In," and television footage of the flooded 9th Ward. Before long, this kind of in-group/out-group attitude may well become insufferable.

Similarly, Treme's willingness to spend five or so minutes away from its narrative to gaze adoringly on some Big Easy brass band or street musician can get it the way of its dramatic momentum. The music is important to the series, clearly, but then Hemingway advised us all to kill our darlings, didn't he? Celebrity guest stars may also become a problem -- each episode so far has integrated, in various ways, your favorite alternative musicians, authors, and celebrity chefs, something that didn't happen often in The Wire (with the exception of that serie's finale, whose inclusion of Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch placed The Wire's much-lauded realism squarely within the confines of the Tommy Westphall hypothesis).