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Fables of reconstruction

Dan Baum uncovers the heart — and souls — of New Orleans

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Author Dan Baum, with mask and gloves off.
  • Author Dan Baum, with mask and gloves off.

New Orleans has served as the perfect muse for novelists like Ishmael Reed and John Kennedy Toole, but it can be a living hell for those who write nonfiction.

The city's Storyville district may have been named after Sidney Story — an alderman who made it a legal refuge for brothels, jazz clubs and other houses of ill repute back in the 1890s — yet it could just as easily refer to the oral tradition that still saturates the city even when the hurricanes are at bay. In a very real sense, New Orleans is itself a story, and an apocryphal one at that.

"New Orleans is not a fact-rich environment," says author Dan Baum. "Often what really did happen is less important than the way everybody involved remembers it happening. It's a city that kind of lives and breathes its legends."

The author of books on Adolph Coors and the war on drugs, Baum became fascinated with the people of New Orleans while reporting on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath for the New Yorker magazine. Bookended by two hurricanes (1965's Betsy and 2005's Katrina), Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans interweaves the stories of extraordinary real-life characters, including a trumpet-playing coroner, a transsexual bar owner, a militant street-car repairman and a venerable Mardi Gras Indian.

New Yorker state of mind

In the two months since it's been published, the book has earned hefty critical accolades: "Nine Lives may be this young year's most artful and emotionally resonating nonfiction book so far," proclaimed the New York Times, while New Orleans' own Times-Picayune declared it "one of the most moving — and riveting — books ever written about the rich and complicated life we live here."

Not bad for a Boulder-based writer whose three-year gig with the New Yorker came to an unpleasant conclusion when his contract came up for renewal in 2007.

"I was fired," says Baum, who claims he "misread the culture of the magazine" and its editor, David Remnick. "I didn't work in the office — I'd go back every three or four months just to show my face — and I would talk to Remnick as a social equal. I mean, we were two Jewish guys from New Jersey, we were almost exactly the same age [Baum just turned 53], and we grew up within 10 miles of each other."

As it turned out, the two journalists weren't on the same page.

"When David Remnick suggests you write a story about the governor of Montana," Baum continues, "the correct answer is not, 'David, I suggested that story to you a year ago and you turned it down, and last week he was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, so we're too late.' The correct answer is, 'Oh, good idea, David, I'll get right on it.'" (Remnick declined to comment on Baum's criticisms.)

Reporting on New Orleans for the magazine was "a fucking nightmare," says Baum, "because I was dealing with the fact-checking department about a city where facts don't really exist."

Life after Capote

Baum's eminently readable book manages to trace the city's four decades in a literary style that's as emotionally rich as it is incredibly detailed. Since nearly all the stories were gathered secondhand, he and his Random House editor had to define for themselves what liberties could be taken when reconstructing the past.

"The dirty word is 'fictionalizing,'" says Baum, "but it's not really fictionalizing. It's recreating scenes out of people's memory and any kind of documentary-supporting material you can find. But when I have Ronald Lewis sitting in Pete Alexander's hair salon and reaching for a beer at a certain moment, do I know that that's the moment in the conversation when he reached for the beer? Of course not. I am recreating that scene, and my editor knew exactly where the line was that the public would accept."

That line has moved considerably in the four decades since Truman Capote opened the doors to literary nonfiction with In Cold Blood. It was a groundbreaking work, says Baum, but he also found it to be "amazingly tame" when he reread it during the early stages of Nine Lives.

In Baum's estimation, Capote ended up pulling his punches: "He doesn't let you sink into the story for too long before he kind of loses his nerve and jerks you out of it."

"You can do more now," says Baum, who carefully lays out his own methodology in the book's opening and closing notes. "As far as I'm concerned, as long as you're up front about what you're doing, you can tell a story any damn way you want."

bill@csindy.com

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