A writer and a photographer go to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to document the production of a "Passion Play" by prisoners. They are friends — drawn together by the fact that both their fathers were murdered in contract killings in Phoenix, cases investigated by the same detective, and now they live in New Orleans, mere blocks from each other.
That much is true.
A writer and a photographer go to Angola to document the production of a "Passion Play" by prisoners. As they go about their work — the difficult, emotionally draining work of making images, listening to stories — the writer becomes caught up in a rarity, a tale of an inmate who proclaims his innocence.
And that becomes fiction.
Such is the curious and compelling blend of fact and fiction in Zachary Lazar’s new novel, his fifth book, “Vengeance.” It is a novel that takes readers inside Angola to face the realities of a life sentence: “Imagine you’re trapped in a barn. Now imagine that the barn is on fire.” And it is a hard, intense look at the realities of the Louisiana criminal justice system and the troubled streets of New Orleans.
It is also a reminder that fiction can take us to someplace we think we know and make us see it in a new way, or make us wonder if we ever saw it aright to begin with. How do we get at the truth of another person’s life? How far can empathy really take us?
Lazar, who moved to New Orleans in 2011, is the author of an impressive body of work. His novel “Sway” captured the violent realities of the ’60s; his memoir, “Evening’s Empire: The True Story of My Father’s Murder,” reconstructed that violent event, which occurred when he was 6 years old; “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” a novel, was inspired by Meyer Lansky’s life. And now comes “Vengeance.”
“When I visited Angola, there weren’t many people who said they were innocent. And that was haunting for me, that stuck in my head,” Lazar said. “I wanted to imagine a story in which the reader is put through a kind of maze. What is the truth?”
The character of convicted murderer Kendrick King is fictional, “a composite of different people I met as well as fully imagined stuff on my part. He’s sort of indicative to me of what I saw in general there. … After all, that’s why I became a fiction writer: I wanted to get into other people’s consciousnesses.
“It’s a very obvious story of redemption in the wake of violence —a story of biblical figures, inmates playing biblical figures. I didn’t know what I was going to say. It ended up having less to do with me and Deb’s story (the photographer Deborah Luster) than I thought it would.”
And yet, Lazar included parts of himself in the book. “The fact that I had a murdered father meant that I had conversations with people that were much deeper than they would have been had I not had that bit of information to share. That biographical fact was important to part of the story I wanted to tell. The conversations I had with people would go really deep, really fast. It was a kind of passkey into their world.”
And that world, the world of this novel, is shifting, episodic, deceptive, enveloping, a dizzying catalog of possible realities as the narrator tries to get at the truth of Kendrick King’s life, both in and out of Angola. He meets his family, visits his young daughter, helps her with her homework. Outside the world of Angola, life goes on, and the novel shows what the absence of one man can mean in the life of a family and a community. This vision quest, this search for truth, also makes the narrator appreciate moments of ordinary life in this extraordinary city.
Lazar does more than just write about life in prison. He is in the middle of his third semester teaching a creative writing class that is made up of half Tulane students, half prisoners at the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, actively supported by head warden Cathy Fontenot. The students work together via video chat and live video feeds, as well as three trips by the Tulane contingent to the prison.
After seven years here, Lazar is settled in New Orleans, happy to be part of “a community of writer friends that is almost laughably inspiring and diverse. … I feel more at home here than any other place I’ve lived. I like it more than any other city in which I lived. It also makes me think about what that even means. As for feeling I had to wait a while before setting a novel here, yes, I did think that.
But in the second year he was here, he met photographer Luster, who brought him to the state penitentiary. "And it was very obvious then that I would have to find a way to write about New Orleans and its relation to Angola,” he said.
“Vengeance,” he said, “opened up the territory of racism. That will inform my work going forward in a way that it didn’t before. I have much more to say on that subject.”
But writing this book, Lazar admits, took a toll. “I felt very constrained by this book, by the close relationships I had with people in prison; I felt a lot of responsibility. It wasn’t the usual free, playful state that artists live in.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM and is the author of “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22
Where: Café Istanbul, 2372 St. Claude Ave.
Lagniappe: A portion of the proceeds benefits The Innocence Project