The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans, By Ned Sublette, Lawrence Hill Books (September 2009)
Hurricane Katrina made the U.S. remember New Orleans. Prior to the storm, the city’s proud citizens and talented musicians kept alive the unique and irreplaceable local culture, while bead and booze-craving college co-eds never missed an opportunity to stop in the Crescent City. But the U.S. government had seemingly decided that if it closed its eyes, clicked its heels, and wished New Orleans away, the city’s failing school system, poverty, faulty levees, corrupt political apparatus, and rampant crime would just disappear into the Mississippi. Katrina made it impossible to ignore those problems any longer. In the wake of the four-year anniversary of the storm, though significant progress has been made, in not just rebuilding the city but improving it, it remains important not to forget New Orleans all over again.
The release date of Ned Sublette’s new retrospective on pre-Katrina New Orleans, The Year Before the Flood, seems aptly timed to help remind us of why the Big Easy was and is so worth saving. Though he’s not a New Orleans native, Sublette would appear the perfect writer to foster an appreciation of the place: he grew up in Louisiana and is a musician and musical historian who chronicled the city’s musical foundations in The World That Made New Orleans.
And for large sections of The Year Before the Flood, Sublette displays a virtuoso knack for distinguishing what makes New Orleans unlike any other place in the United States. His writing is often compelling and not surprisingly, Sublette is at his best when discussing music. His vibrant descriptions of the boisterous ensembles Rebirth Brass Band and The Neville Brothers could make even those unfamiliar with the groups’ music begin to tap their feet and long for a night at smoky Tipitina’s. His explanation of and full-scale immersion in one of the city’s oldest traditions, second lines, which Sublette calls “an ambulatory block part. It’s about shaking your butt down the street to a brass band” also illuminates how New Orleans’s twisted racial history has helped to produce some of the city’s most lasting cultural outpourings. In moments like these, the reader has the feeling that Sublette not only understands the city, but that its rhythms have become synchronized with his own.
For much of The Year Before the Flood, Sublette also proves to be as gifted a historian as he is a musical aficionado. The book is based on his experiences living in New Orleans for ten months in 2004 and 2005, immediately before Katrina hit. Sublette came to the city as a visiting scholar at Tulane University, where he was able to peruse the university library archives at his leisure. In the hands of a less-skilled historian, this type of access might have been wasted. However, Sublette offers readers a literal Lake Pontchartrain-sized body of fascinating historical incidents, reflections on the birth and evolution of Mardi Gras, and an accounting of why the city’s neighborhoods and streets have names like the “Irish Channel” and the “Marigny.” Sublette doesn’t just present this information as a hodge-podge of miscellaneous facts. Instead, he constructs a gripping, cohesive narrative. His account of how former President Eisenhower’s initiative to build a highway system across the nation during the 1950s eventually led to the complete bifurcation of the Treme, one of the oldest African American residential areas in the country, is as fascinating as it is disheartening. The highway project devastated this culturally rich neighborhood, and Sublette uses it as a metaphor for the way the city’s African American population has been trampled on by local and federal government throughout history.
Yet, when Sublette strays from history and music and turns instead to memoir, the book takes a decided turn for the worse. Sublette indulges himself, pontificating as if his every thought on New Orleans’s food culture, sports, and George W. Bush were gospel truth. Few would disagree with his take that Bush abandoned New Orleans. But Sublette writes as if he’s the first person to discover this. And while it’s certainly valid to deride the former president, Sublette’s take on Bush lacks specificity and novelty. There is nothing to learn from his take on the political situation surrounding Katrina—these parts of The Year Before the Flood read like the overly-general rants one finds on blog comment boards.
Sublette writes the memoir sections of the book under a misguided perception of what the reader will find interesting. Crime remains a huge problem in New Orleans, but rather than do any original reporting on the causes of this municipal blight, Sublette overly dramatizes his personal experiences—especially in recalling an incident when a drunken frat boy mistakenly enters his home. Sublette treats this as the crime of the century. And he focuses so much attention on the crime issue throughout the book that it frequently sounds as if he’s writing about a city he detests. This doesn’t do New Orleans justice. New Orleans is a flawed city, but that’s part of what makes it so worthwhile. It’s not a finely manicured, sterile metropolis like much of Manhattan has become. Altogether, The Year Before the Flood frustrates the reader as frequently as it rewards him. A writer with Sublette’s evident talent for history and music would have been better served honing in on what he knows best and showing restraint when it comes to himself.