Nine Lives

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Dan Baum’s Nine Lives is a truly remarkable achievement in numerous ways, not least in that, as various commentators confirm, it “gets” New Orleans as few books have. In Baum’s hands, the city of New Orleans itself becomes an antagonist, a tenth life, frustrating the nine protagonists of the title. Baum brackets his portrait of city and characters between two hurricanes, Betsy (1965) and Katrina (2005), chronicling more than forty years of events that accelerated the city’s long decline after its pre-Civil War glory. New Orleans, sited at a strategically crucial point at the lower end of the Mississippi River, was once the spigot that could shut off all but overland travel up and down the continent. The Erie and other canals and then the transcontinental railways supplemented the north-south Mississippi trade with burgeoning east-west commerce, serving only to increase the port city’s importance, as it served as the gateway to world shipping and to Central and South America.

Baum reveals, however, that by the mid-twentieth century New Orleans was increasingly a backwater town. It was challenged economically by new competitors such as the oil-rich Houston and the cosmopolitan Miami, and it was held back by a poisonous racial climate summed up in the experiences of two of Baum’s subjects: Ronald Lewis struggled against racism while organizing workers, and Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., strove to help semi-abandoned African American children who joined his school band. Meanwhile, the city was losing its economic base: Containerization replaced Ninth Ward stevedores. Wholesale “white flight” to the Metairie suburbs, exemplified in John Guidos’s early life, left New Orleans with an African American majority population. Its school and recreational systems, once vigorous and even admirable, suffered as white taxpayers abandoned them for Catholic or private schools and Mardi Gras celebrations.

Baum uses Billy Grace, a decent, well-meaning member of the white uptown aristocracy, to manifest the difficulty of changing a city fanatically committed to tradition: Billy, an upper-middle-class striver himself who married into Carnival circles, works to elect Creole Marc Morial mayor but faces the disapproval of his society peers. Billy, serves as Rex, King of Carnival, a New Orleans title and tradition dating back to 1872, and he truly believes Rex’s motto, pro bono publico, “for the public good.” He regards his own strenuous efforts on behalf of Rex’s Krewe (the group that mounts the king’s annual Mardi Gras parade) as a public service.

Baum wonderfully captures Billy’s almost charming cluelessness when, during one Mardi Gras, the aristocrat runs into Tootie Montana, the godfather of the modern Mardi Gras Indians. Tootie has been a real change agent, single-handedly replacing the bloody fights between the Indian “tribes,” or marching clubs, with aesthetic competition for the prettiest Indian outfit. Even participants can hardly believe that Tootie was able to bring about this shift from ingrained violence to a fashionista contest between men of color dressed as Native Americans. Billy, in effect, tells Tootie, “We have much in common; let’s do lunch.” Tootie, however, is heedless of the opportunity represented by an old white Rex engaging a new black innovator. He never calls. Baum uses the story to emphasize that, while people live cheek by jowl in New Orleans, they inhabit hermetic universes (“different planets,” remarks Baum). In uptown New Orleans, such separate worlds are only blocks apart.

Frank Minyard does bridge communities. Like many New Orleanians, Frank is a school musician who maintains his trumpet skills as a lifelong avocation. A downtown white boy, he becomes a gynecologist to uptown matrons. Making huge money (even treating African American patients) and womanizing energetically, Frank finds his social conscience when he is asked to enlist his friend Pete Fountain to play in a benefit concert for a children’s breakfast program. The toddlers in the program are the offspring of prostitutes, and the venue is a Black Panthers center. Frank, unfazed, agrees to dispense methadone to the children’s heroin-addicted mothers.

When arrested for streetwalking, these prostitutes become addicted at the city’s central lockup, where the official responsible for their medical care, in a perfect New Orleans touch, is the Orleans Parish coroner. When the coroner refuses to dispense methadone to addicts, Frank promises to take away his elective job and does so, assuming the duties of coroner and becoming possibly the longest-serving official in Louisiana history and one of the few U.S. coroners who performs regularly on the trumpet. The motto of Frank’s office sums up his efforts on behalf of all New Orleanians throughout his long career: “Where death delights to serve the living.”

During the 1970’s, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargoed the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 9/10 (January 1, 2009): 40.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 18.

Newsweek 153 (March 16, 2009): 18.

The New York Times Book Review, February 22, 2009, p. 13.

The Next American City, Spring, 2009, pp. 51-52.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 50 (December 15, 2008): 44.