Unlike many writers who move to New Orleans, Nathaniel Rich never meant to write about the place. “If you’d asked me five or six years ago, I would have said, ’Not on your life!’ I have a huge respect for the literary tradition here and just for the lived experience of the city … But at a certain point, you don’t have a choice, and it grabs you,” he said.
Now it will grab readers in his third novel, “King Zeno,” which takes place during a pivotal year in the city’s history: 1918. It is a gritty portrait of a city clawing its way toward the future, wrestling with geography, history, destiny, the forces of nature and human greed and hope.
“The idea came from a confluence of a million sources,” Rich said. “But in particular, two things: I was fascinated with the Industrial Canal and how it was built, or dug or excavated. I was drawn to it as a symbol of the city’s troubled relationship with the natural world and this sense of a need to control nature — often in dramatic, ambitious, earth-moving ways. And ultimately, as in the case of the Industrial Canal, these projects carry within them a seed of doom and destruction.
“It just fascinated me, this idea of building the canal, unearthing these various levels of ancient forests. Then I became interested in the story of the Axeman, and reading old newspaper articles about that, and I discovered that at the same time there was this other parallel crime spree involving a highwayman, what we’d call a stick-up artist. There was a young African- American boy holding up white men, and this caused a racial panic to spring up — there were reprisal killings of innocent black people. And the culmination of that story was that the highwayman shot and killed a detective named Obitz, the lead investigator in the Axeman murders."
The Axeman was a serial killer blamed for the murders of six people in 1918 and 1919. The killer was never caught.
“Then there was influenza, the end of the war, the end of Storyville, and the popularization of jazz — crossing over from a form that had been seen by New Orleans' high society as a form that had given the city a bad name. It was too much not to write about. I fell in love with all of it, saw a narrative forming out of these various strands.”
Meticulously timed and plotted, “King Zeno” ties these events together in the unforgettable characters of Isadore Zeno, the title character, a talented, striving cornetist with a shady side business; Mafia matriarch Beatrice Vizzini and her son Giorgio (think Ignatius Reilly with a truly dark and dangerous side) who owns Hercules Construction, the company digging the canal; and a policeman, Billy Bastrop, struggling for personal redemption and fame as the man who solves the Axeman’s murders.
At the heart of this novel, Rich says, “is the quest for immortality, man’s desire to be immortal.” So it is that all these characters struggle onward.
To read “King Zeno” is to see the city through Rich’s sharply observant yet loving eyes. "You can go to a lot of these locations and the buildings are still there," he said. "Even the cobblestone is still there. The sense of the city’s history is vivid in ways that it’s not in many American cities.”
That vivid and visible history is amplified by human voices. “I found this incredible archive of recordings from an oral history project done by the Friends of the Cabildo Historical Society, about 200 interviews from the '70s into the '90s, roughly. They’re all collected at the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library, and some are at Tulane.
“The interviewers asked questions no formal histories would answer,” he said. “What songs did the street vendors sing? Where’d you go to the bathroom, in the house or was there an outhouse? Where did you buy your groceries? How did you get food? What was your experience of the Mississippi River? Things like that — an incredible amount of really visceral, sensual details was derived from those interviews.”
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Rich has impeccable literary credentials. He’s an at-large writer for The New York Times Magazine. His work frequently appears in The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books; he was formerly fiction editor of The Paris Review. His father, Frank Rich, is a former columnist now at HBO; his mother, Gail Winston, is an executive editor at HarperCollins; and his brother, Simon Rich, is a noted comic writer.
Rich has lived in New Orleans since 2010, when his wife, Meredith Angelson, accepted a job with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s local office. Their son, Roman, was born here.
While their decision to move to the city was driven by Angelson’s job search, Nathaniel Rich said, “Life in New York had become constricting. And for a while there, I was afraid I’d have to resign myself to living in San Diego.” (He recoils in mock horror.) “But coming to New Orleans, I definitely felt I was coming toward something.”
Maybe it was this book he was moving toward. Modest to a fault, Rich is thoughtful and serious. “I’m obsessed with cities,” he said. His first two novels, “The Mayor’s Tongue” and “Odds Against Tomorrow,” were largely set in his native New York. His work of nonfiction, “San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present,” drew on another city that he loves.
It takes time to learn a city, to love it, to make a mark on it, and Rich has done that in “King Zeno.” Writing about contemporary New Orleans is not in Rich’s immediate future, “but,” he said, “I can reasonably claim I‘m one of the authorities on 1918 New Orleans. I’m confident about that.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO.
Nathaniel Rich discusses and signs “King Zeno” with novelist Katy Simpson Smith
When: Tuesday, Jan. 9, 6 p.m.
Where: Garden District Book Shop
2727 Prytania St., New Orleans