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Six-Word Summary: Gomorrah never had it this good
Forget the setting: in Babylon Rolling
(Pantheon, 301 pages, $23.95), New Orleans is the protagonist. Slowly, silently, the Big Easy drives us mad with imaginary moths or seduces us in the guise of a sultry sous chef. Wearing cheap beads, it hollers and stomps and sashays, giving off a rank but intimate odor as it propels the action of the novel. Despite a few structural problems, author Amanda Boyden has really got New Orleans right, and her second book is a thrill to read.
Five families on the same city block live out a difficult year, occasionally crossing paths. Fifteen-year-old Daniel “Fearius” Harris—recently released from a stint in juvie—struggles to fill his brother's shoes as a drug dealer and a hit man. Aging debutante Philomenia Beauregard de Bruges battles dementia as she waits for her husband to die. Yuppie couple Ariel May and Ed Flank attempt to hide their failing marriage from their two children. Meanwhile, the Guptas are just trying to fit in, and the Browns watch it all from the safety of their front porch. Loosely organized around the arrival of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Babylon Rolling
showcases the Crescent City in all its pre-Katrina glory.
One of the novel's biggest successes is its dialect writing, especially when Fearius is narrating. Boyden has somehow managed to render those sections in black Southern slang without either seeming condescending or sacrificing finer shades of meaning. Take, for instance, the following paragraph, from Chapter 4:
“But it like what they say? Fearius stare down at the stoop and spit. A rock and a hard place. It good and not good. Best he live rich or die trying. What else he gone do, shove fries out a window, be poor all the days he get? Fearius gots plans. He gots big plans. He dream of spinnin rims, paying somebody else to detail his ride. Baby blue glitter paint, but tasteful. Speakers under the seats they so many, so loud. Nobody gone miss Fearius coming or going Not Moms or Pops neither. He be showing them why school aint gone happen and why he right. Fearius gone buy Moms some sparkling Christmas presents, yo.” (pg. 48)
The syntax may be unfamiliar, but there's nothing one-dimensional about Fearius. As a character, he is imbued with compelling dreams, loyalties, misgivings, lusts and fears. In many ways, he is the most sympathetic of Boyden's narrators.
That said, Babylon
isn't perfect. Although it's impeccably rendered on the micro level—each sentence is a zen garden of carefully-chosen words—on the macro level the novel lacks the same degree of care. The overall structure—a year in the life of five families living on the same city block—is weak to begin with, and Boyden doesn't do anything exceptional with it. Her five families don't even interact in any meaningful way.
It might be argued that the lack of a strong connection between Boyden's five families is intentional, part of the book's design. After all, New Orleans is a diverse city, many of whose residents have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Why shouldn't a book about New Orleans reflect that diversity, even the unrelatedness of it?
De gustibus non est disputandum,
ya heard? But to my taste, Babylon
lacked the plot braiding and the thematic core necessary to make sense of its disparate elements. Ultimately, Ariel's adulterous sex with a sous chef just doesn't have anything to do with Fearius' blowing the brains out of a rival dealer.
One way to incorporate such a diverse cast of characters would have been to set them against the backdrop of a larger historical event, one that cut across strata of race and class. Tolstoy used the Napoleonic Wars, and Amanda Boyden almost
did the same thing with Hurricane Ivan. But rather than using the storm to bring her families together, she sends them all scurrying off in different directions. Instead of a well-developed plot, she settles for a string of unlikely mishaps.
Ah, well. For all my gripes about plot structure, it was still a great read, made all the more poignant by the looming shadow of Hurricane Katrina.
Roll On Over: Amanda Boyden will read from and sign copies of
Babylon Rolling at Powell's City of Books on Wednesday, August 13th, at 7:30 pm.