By Chris Rose
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
$18.99, 364 pgs.
I should preface this review by admitting I’m not usually a big fan of short stories; I prefer the continuity of a novel, something with a solid plot I can get lost in.
So when I first cracked the spine of 1 Dead in Attic, and realized the entire book was a compilation of columns, I braced myself to battle through.
As it turns out, my wariness was unwarranted.
Chris Rose, author of the frankly-titled book, is also a columnist for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper, so he’s mastered the art of writing clearly and simply, while still managing to evoke a strong visceral reaction from his readers.
1 Dead in Attic is actually a chronological collection of columns Rose wrote for his paper, starting in the days immediately after the storm, when he decided to stay entrenched in the city to bear witness to the chaos Hurricane Katrina left behind, and stretching to the months following.
Rose was nominated for a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
The staccato structure of Rose’s book actually works to the reader’s advantage, allowing him to cobble together tales of life after Katrina, rather than try, in hindsight, to recount the range of emotions the people of New Orleans have experienced since The Thing — as he often refers to Katrina — came crashing down on their doorsteps.
Now, over two years later, this collection of stories serves as a heart-wrenching reminder of the incredible loss the people of New Orleans suffered, the hardships they have endured, and how much work still has to be done. But it does all this without being overtly preachy.
While this is by no means a “feel-good” read, Rose’s writing is infused with colour, vibrancy and the character of the people of New Orleans.
“In the dark and fetid Winn-Dixie on Tchoupitoulas, an old woman I passed in the pet food aisle was wearing a house frock and puffy slippers and she just looked at me as she pushed her cart by and said, ‘How you doin’, baby?’ As if it were just another afternoon buying groceries. I love the way strangers call you ‘baby’ in this town.”
The devastating stories, collected from people Rose randomly meets as he wanders, dazed, around his city, are also told with a touch of humour. One chapter, entitled “God and Strippers,” describes the mysterious re-emergence of exotic dancers in the days after the storm.
“Even at the end of days, there will be lap dancing.
“Over the weekend, while a desolate, desperate city plunged into darkness and the waters rose again in the Rita Aftermath, and while a population spread across the nation watched new horrors on TV with churning guts, a strip club opened on Bourbon Street.”
While Rose’s use of humour is mildly shocking at first, it’s also a testament to the resilient spirit of the people of New Orleans, who are fighting to regain some sense of normalcy. As time passes, the tone of Rose’s columns shifts noticeably, and emotions range from shock and sadness to frustration and anger as he explores social and political aspects of the catastrophe.
As a newsman, Rose struggles to detach himself from his subject matter. The disaster hits so close to home — he is also separated from his wife and young children for weeks at a time as he stays in New Orleans to work — that he ends up sharing his personal turmoil and chronicling his struggle with depression.
The end result is that Rose truly opens up to his readers, bypassing a stoic façade in favour of an honest, if sometimes sappy, recollection of what it was like to be in New Orleans in the fall of 2005.
“Is it depressing here? Yes. Is it dangerous? Maybe. The water, the air, the soil… I don’t know.
“And there’s little doubt that the kids have picked up the vibe. My six-year-old daughter has started writing a book this week — a writer in the family! — and she has a page about the hurricane in it and it says, ‘A lot of people died. Some of them were kids.’
“Mercy. God in Heaven, what lives are we handing to these children of the storm?”
If you’ve ever wondered how people can bring themselves to start over from scratch, to rebuild their homes and lives after a disaster like Katrina, 1 Dead in Attic may help you understand the powerful meaning of home.