Wednesday, December 2, 2009

review: Shake The Devil Off by Ethan Brown

Going to try and do this book review from memory, as it was part of last week's theft.

Shake The Devil Off: A True Story of the Murder that Rocked New Orleans

by Ethan Brown
Henry Holt, 2009

On the surface this is a story straight from the deepest, darkest macabre tales of New Orleans. A guy and a girl, part of the New Orleans French Quarter and bar scene get in a dispute. The guy cuts girls' limbs, puts pieces of her in various apartment appliances and he writes frightening messages all across his walls. All of this occurs only a year after Hurricane Katrina.

This is not a Hurricane Katrina book per se, more of a book about the aftereffects and emotional toll that two national tragedies wrought on the psyche of one young man.

Zack Bowen and Addie Hall's tale was spread across the local and national news as gruesome evidence of what Hurricane Katrina had wrought. I remember reading about this back in 2006 and being fascinated by what everyone else was fascinated by--not the violence, but the unusual nature of it. That it happened in the French Quarter, among folk so strange, yet so familiar to one another made it seem even more odd
. (The website Nolafugees did one of the first interesting introspective pieces about it--I think they pulled it down, but it's now in their book).

Ethan Brown seems like kind of the wrong guy to write this book, he was visiting New Orleans soon after the murder happened, and sensing a story, started interviews and later moved his family down from New York to write the story. Brown, though somewhat an opportunist, seems to have the right deposition for the legwork however. He obviously spends a lot of time at the various stomping grounds of Zack and Addie, especially at Matassa's, a grocery store in the Quarter. He is also able to convince Zack's ex-wife to speak with him along with several fellow "Quartericans"--some drug dealers, some landlords, some waiters and waitresses.

The life of Zack is fully excavated by Brown, for whatever reason (maybe it becomes clear in the last 1/8 of the book I didn't get to read) the life of Addie before New Orleans is barely touched. But we learn that Zack was a tall and nervous sort, who had a sense of depression about "mistakes he had made" before he had really made any. He had dropped out of high school in California, bounced around a bit, ended up in New Orleans bartending and eventually married a stripper named Lana. Bowen got his life together and joined the Army shortly before 9/11 and then served in Kosovo and Afghanistan. This service, as Brown makes clear, is the turning point for Bowen's life--it filled him with duty, but also filled him with post-traumatic stress, a situation that he would never fully recover from.

Brown rightly points out that Zack was involved in two of the greatest government debacles of the decade, first Afghanistan, where he witnessed children being killed and then later New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where Zack had a front row display. But, as Brown finds, it wasn't Hurricane Katrina that Zack had a problem with, it was the post-traumatic stress worsened by Hurricane Katrina.

During the storm, Zack and Addie played "house," essentially--they befriended other holdouts in the Quarter and performed a series of odd jobs and chores during the day to make Quarter life better while hanging out with the other holdouts at night. This lasted for a month, and as every good student of Katrina knows, the Quarter was barely touched in the flooding and most that stayed practiced their drinking skills to full effect, while managing to pull off some basic Boy Scout survival skills during the day. This was the happiest and best times for Zack and Addie.

What unhinged Zack was the undoing of this war-like world, the camaraderie involved in it dissipated into a broken government system. Brown lists incidences where Zack and Addie felt disrespected by the National Guard sent to their area, as if they deserved immunity from forced evacuations and the rule of law. On Addie's side, she was plagued by extreme mood swings--sometimes violent in nature, setting her at odds with roommates and other Quarter confidantes.
Their behavior was exacerbated by the free drugs they were allowed from helping out a friend.

The very eccentricities of the people that make the French Quarter a bohemian and party mecca also make those same people unstable and volatile. The two, at least in Brown's account, go hand-in-hand.

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