After Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans two years ago, breaching the levees and knocking a delightfully alive metropolis onto life support, local newspaper columnist Chris Rose became something of a literary avenging angel.
The writer, previously known mostly for having the inside scoop on where to go and what to eat in New Orleans, shucked off his patina of frivolity and instead became the anguished voice for a city wounded by nature and haunted by neglect.
His Times-Picayune columns, by turns angry and reflective, became must-reads over breakfast in the battered Crescent City, helping the newspaper become an indispensable part of the community — a feat not many papers can claim these days. Last year, Rose self-published a collection of his post-Katrina columns under the title 1 Dead in Attic. Publisher Simon & Schuster has picked it up, and for this volume has added an additional 140 pages of Rose’s more recent work.
Arranged roughly chronologically, from citizens’ desperate flight out of Katrina’s path to the depression many have experienced from having their lives and city ripped apart, 1 Dead in Attic makes for heartfelt, harrowing yet often uplifting reading. Unlike most of the TV coverage, which focused on Katrina’s broad, destructive sweep — the Superdome, the ragged rooftop figures, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — Rose hews to the small, personal strokes.
So a trip to the drugstore becomes an excuse to examine New Orleans’ troubled psyche: “We talk about prescription medications now as if they were the soft-shell crabs at Clancy’s,” Rose writes in one of the columns, titled “Mad City”: “Suddenly, we’ve all developed a low-grade expertise in pharmacology.
“Everybody’s got it, this thing, this affliction, this affinity for forgetfulness, absentmindedness, confusion, laughing in inappropriate circumstances, crying when the wrong song comes on the radio, behaving in odd and contrary ways.
“A friend recounts a recent conversation into which Murphy’s Law was injected. … In perhaps the most succinct characterization of contemporary life in New Orleans I’ve heard yet, one said to the other, `Murphy’s running this town now.’ Ain’t that the truth?”
Surprisingly, Rose doesn’t delve too deeply into politics. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is the subject of at least one column, but this story is not dominated by politicians, the Army Corps of Engineers or even FEMA, though it’s clear Rose doesn’t think too much of anyone who may have prolonged the city’s agony.
Instead, he mostly writes about the small stories of death, hope and survival that make his adopted hometown a special place that’s worth savoring and saving. Whether it’s remembering how he, as a Wisconsin college student, fell in love with New Orleans he first time or telling the story of elderly Ellen Montgomery — who refused to leave and survived with her house full of cats and paintings intact, Katrina be damned — Rose doesn’t see a city full of victims but one of spirit and fortitude.
For all of their power, the columns that make up 1 Dead in Attic probably worked better when doled out two to three times a week in the newspaper format. Read together as a book, the litany of torment and tragedy is numbing. At the other end of the spectrum, some of his attempts at humor — as in “Tutti Frutti,” with all of its candy-bar references to Nagin after he gave his infamous “Chocolate City” speech — fall flat.
Still, even though many bad things have happened to Rose in the last couple of years — such as the collapse of his marriage and perhaps even his sanity — the ultimate message is that the last thing any true New Orleanian wants is pity. He, like New Orleans, survives.
It’s surely no accident that Rose quotes what he says is an indelible New Orleans credo: “When life gives you lemons — make daiquiris.”