Book Review: Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans

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Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum. Reviewed by Kris Harding.

Dan Baum has worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and been a staff writer for the New Yorker. His articles have appeared in the New York Times magazine, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Wired and other national publications. He is the author of Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty and Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. Baum’s wife, Margaret Knox, acts as his editor and collaborator on all his works. Baum came to New Orleans two days after Katrina and reported on the aftermath for the New Yorker’s online blog for over a year.

Baum became frustrated by his reporting about Katrina, because he found so much more interesting about the city besides the disaster. He says, “it’s the unusual nature of the city’s people that make New Orleans unlike anyplace else in the United States.” Yes, there are personalities in New Orleans who rival any fictional creation from the fertile mind of a novelist. So he chose nine of these characters and told their stories in a non-fiction work that reads like fiction. Katrina comes only in the last quarter of the book. After getting to know these people, I found much of that portion very hard to read. It made me want to cry, but more often it made me angry enough to scream.

Narrowing down the list of people to write about must have been very hard, but Baum has chosen a cross section of our diversity—4 white, 5 black, 6 men, 3 women (oops, one of them started life as a man, but then that’s very New Orleans.) They include the wife of the chief of the Mardi Gras Indians, a high school band director, a coroner who also plays jazz, a police officer, a cross-dressing insurance salesman, a Mardi Gras krewe captain, streetcar maintenance worker. Baum catches the voice of each of his characters, lets them tell their tales at their own pace, and exposes the beauty and the corruption at the heart of this most fascinating of American cities. It’s a brutally honest portrait that follows these people to their homes, their jobs, their churches, to jail and school, to bars and balls and social activities unlike those of any other city.

I heartily recommend this as much more than a Katrina book. Nine Lives illuminates the strange and beautiful culture of a people who will spend thousands of dollars and hours just to make a parade, of people to whom music is salvation, of families that have never been more than an hour’s drive from their home and have no desire to do so.

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