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City of Refuge: A Novelby Tom Piazza
Synopses & Reviews
In the heat of late summer, two New Orleans families — one black and one white — confront a storm that will change the course of their lives.
SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward, the community where he was born and raised. His sister, Lucy, is a soulful mess, and SJ has been trying to keep her son, Wesley, out of trouble. Across town, Craig Donaldson, a Midwestern transplant and the editor of the city's alternative paper, faces deepening cracks in his own family. New Orleans' music and culture have been Craig's passion, but his wife, Alice, has never felt comfortable in the city. The arrival of their two children has inflamed their arguments about the wisdom of raising a family there.
When the news comes of a gathering hurricane — named Katrina — the two families make their own very different plans to weather the storm. The Donaldsons join the long evacuation convoy north, across Lake Pontchartrain and out of the city. SJ boards up his windows and brings Lucy to his house, where they wait it out together, while Wesley stays with a friend in another part of town.
But the long night of wind and rain is only the beginning — and when the levees give way and the flood waters come, the fate of each family changes forever. The Williamses are scattered — first to the Convention Center and the sweltering Superdome, and then far beyond city and state lines, where they struggle to reconnect with one another. The Donaldsons, stranded and anxious themselves, find shelter first in Mississippi, then in Chicago, as Craig faces an impossible choice between the city he loves and the family he had hoped to raise there.
Ranging from the lush neighborhoods of New Orleans to Texas, Missouri, Chicago, and beyond, City of Refuge is a modern masterpiece — a panoramic novel of family and community, trial and resilience, told with passion, wisdom, and a deep understanding of American life in our time.
Understanding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has obsessed New Orleans writers for three years, since the levees failed and the city struggled back to life like a dowager after a stroke. Tom Piazza wrote one of the most immediate (and still one of the best) responses to the disaster, the nonfiction book "Why New Orleans Matters." Now, he continues to explain the pull of his adopted home with "City... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of Refuge," a novel about the experiences of two families who reside at geographically opposite ends of the city — and polar opposites of the New Orleans experience. SJ Williams is a fairly typical native of the city's Lower Ninth Ward, a widowed carpenter and a veteran, an African American man without much money but with a home he owns free and clear. Drifting in and out of SJ's life are his alcoholic sister, Lucy, who somehow just manages to get by every month, and her son, Wesley, a young adult with an uncertain future who knows nothing of life beyond the Ninth Ward. Craig Donaldson is SJ's opposite — like Piazza, he's a white transplant drawn to New Orleans by its culture and traditions. Once a bohemian, he now has a wife, two children, a house and a steady job as the editor of the city's alt-weekly newspaper. Even before Katrina, though, Craig's wife, Alice, isn't sold on New Orleans as a place to raise children. When the hurricane exiles the Donaldsons to a nice Chicago suburb, Alice is not-so-secretly thrilled, but Craig's need to get back to his adopted home town begins to crack the levee holding back years of resentment in their marriage. Piazza fixates on some details of the storm — SJ's escape from his drowning house, and the horrors of the flooded Lower Ninth Ward — and skitters over others. The long days at the Superdome and Convention Center, with people dying in the streets, seem almost too much for words, and his straightforward prose sometimes turns hallucinogenic: "Prince Hamlet plays the sitar on a cooler full of body parts, Santa Claus has lice, Rosa Parks is having a heart attack on the curb." Most of "City of Refuge" isn't about the storm but about the influence New Orleans exerts over these people, even after they're finally bused out and dumped out, dazed, to make their lives over in a strange place. All this is expressed in prose both fierce and sentimental, veering at times on the unsubtle. Piazza is strongest when he's letting his characters grope for words and meaning, not when he's delivering editorial diatribes against the federal government's failures. His eloquence distracts from SJ's and Craig's struggles to express themselves when they're not exactly sure what they're feeling, or why. Lucy is Piazza's most memorable creation. Her life has long been defined by lack of achievement (or opportunity), yet she shows the most ingenuity of all these exiles, whether she's taking charge of a refugee camp in a Midwest cotton field or finding cash jobs in the Houston exurbs, doing hair "New Orleans style." Unlike SJ or Craig, Lucy has always had to take care of herself, so Katrina is just another wrinkle in her complicated life, and her resourcefulness shines through. Wesley finds himself adapting, too, and Alice is happy in the three-block faux-bohemia of suburban Chicago, with its indie bookshop and $4 lattes. But Craig and SJ, different as they are, have one thing in common: They're stuck in place, unable to move on from New Orleans, unable to move back. For them, Chicago and Houston are mental dislocations as much as physical ones. That feeling of rootlessness is the central theme of "City of Refuge," and for anyone whose life has been upended by natural disaster, the novel's sense of being out of place will resonate just as loudly as it did in "Why New Orleans Matters." Explaining this city's inexorable, gravitational pull to outsiders who see only corruption, crime, poverty and malarial weather is a tough order, but every page of Piazza's deeply felt story explains a larger truth about why people live where they do: because it's home, and heart. Reviewed by Kevin Allman, who is a frequent reviewer and a New Orleans resident, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Piazza tells a towering tale of self, family, and place, a story as old and heartbreaking as humankind itself." Booklist (Starred Review)
"This emotional novel reads like a memoir, teeming with fear, anger, pathos, hope, determination, and love. It is absolutely essential reading for every American who watched and prayed through those terrible days. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Craig's and SJ's approaches to evacuation couldn't differ more, and while their competing narratives occasionally illustrate the city's race and class divide a little too schematically, the point that thousands were left to rot is brought home with kinetic intensity." Publishers Weekly
"The struggles of the two families depicted are not always well balanced, but Piazza's writing is so fresh and vital readers will feel, all over again, the outrage at the abandonment of this beloved city." Kirkus Reviews
"Although Piazza's intentions are clearly sincere and good, to slather a novel in sentiment only replaces one set of abstractions with another." Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times Book Review
"To read City of Refuge is to realize that this is what fiction is for: to take us to places the cameras can't go. The novel's characters — and what happens to them — are unforgettable, and so is the portrait of New Orleans, the city Tom Piazza clearly loves with all his large, generous heart." Richard Russo
"City of Refuge is an old-fashioned, realistic novel of New Orleans, with all the sensuousness, all the flash-point tumult, the easy-yet-hard-won virtue of the city, as well all the forthrightness, the deftness and affirming intensity of the form. People ask me when will Katrina begin to inform our art, when will imagination become essential to tell what the raw facts can't. Well, here's an answer: now. City of Refuge speaks eloquently into that silence." Richard Ford
"City of Refuge is a tremendously moving book. While reading it you will have to fight the urge to skip ahead to see what happened, and to whom. This is true even though we all know on a general level 'what happened' during Hurricane Katrina; Piazza takes what we know to a deeper, more human level. There are books that give back to art and there are books that give back to life — this book is among the latter." Mary Gaitskill
"Tom Piazza's City of Refuge is a great read — sweeping and intimate, elegiac and angry, serving as lyrical witness to the destruction and recovery of a great city." Jess Walter
"Whatever Tom Piazza writes is touched with magic. As a former longtime New Orleans resident, I was astounded at how brilliantly Piazza captured (in vivid detail) the nuances of his City of Refuge. Although this is ostensibly a Katrina novel, Piazza transcends genre or pigeonholing in what is one of the most deeply humanistic portraits of people coping with cataclysm since The Grapes of Wrath." Douglas Brinkley
From the award-winning novelist and author of Why New Orleans Matters comes a breathtaking novel of two families, one white and one black, whose lives are torn apart by Hurricane Katrina, and then pieced back together again in ways they couldn't have imagined.
In City of
About the Author
Tom Piazza is the author of the post-Katrina classic Why New Orleans Matters, the Faulkner Society Award-winning novel My Cold War, and the widely acclaimed short-story collection Blues and Trouble, which won the James Michener Award for Fiction. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he is also well known as a writer on American music; in 2004 he won a Grammy Award for his album notes for Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues: A Musical Journey, and he is a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. Tom Piazza lives in New Orleans.
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