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Thursday, March 8, 2018

King Zeno: What A Time To Be Alive In New Orleans

In 1918 New Orleans, a serial killer gruesomely hacked his victims to death with an axe he often stole from the victims themselves. The so-called Axeman of New Orleans was never apprehended. Meanwhile, construction was just beginning on a massive canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, bisecting New Orleans's Ninth Ward. A Spanish Flu outbreak in the city killed several thousand residents. A new form of music called jas (or jazz, as it's known now) floated through the air. And rumblings from Washington about efforts to enact Prohibition threatened to prevent the good times from rolling. (The Volstead Act passed the next year, in October 1919.)

What a time to be alive! If you like your historical fiction with a healthy dose of real-life, then Nathaniel Rich's new novel King Zeno is just the book for you.

Rich's novel takes advantages of this rich confluence of historical events in a city known for its richness of culture and tells the stories of three characters whose lives all intersect and influence each other. A poor black jazz musician named Isadore Zeno works on the canal and tries to provide for his family. The rich widow of a gangster attempts to go straight, making the canal project her last dirty deal. And a New Orleans detective and World War I veteran is tangled up trying to solve the horrific axe murders while dealing with his own demons.

These characters are as well-drawn and fully realized as the historical detail itself. One of the craziest, best parts of the novel involves the character Zeno, and is based on a real event. To try to jumpstart his failing jazz career, he writes a letter to the newspaper purporting to be the Axeman, and threatens to kill more people unless all the rich white people in the Garden District hire a jazz band for a party on a Tuesday night. Unbelievably (except that, again, this really happened!), the newspaper prints the letter and there's a big citywide party.

I loved this book, not the least because I love New Orleans. But Rich is a magnificently talented writer, clever an super fun to read. And he tells this story at a near breakneck pace. There's sex, and booze, and rock'n'rollish (JAZZ!). Highly recommended!