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Big Easy's hard-won resilience

Julia Reed's memoir reveals New Orleans' strength, not Katrina's.

August 19, 2008|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

First came the storm. Then came the flood. And then came what was, perhaps, a bit more predictable: the surge of books about Hurricane Katrina and its nightmarish aftermath: Eyewitness accounts; photo documentaries, dense investigative texts attempting to explain why the levees broke, why people didn't (or couldn't) leave; and most poignantly, a stream of poetic elegies to a New Orleans culture that people feared would evaporate when the water finally retreated.

Journalist and essayist Julia Reed wasn't planning to write a Katrina book. In fact, her memoir, "The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story," isn't a Katrina book like Douglas Brinkley's "The Great Deluge" or others that are about the catastrophe itself, she says after ordering a glass of rose in an Old Town Pasadena cafe before an evening reading at Vroman's. "I wanted it to be about New Orleans."

In fact, says Reed, she'd been thinking her next book, after 2004's book of essays, "Queen of the Turtle Derby," would be a "memoir/history of the Mississippi Delta where I'm from and got the last of its cultural heyday." About a week before the storm, she met with her agent to discuss it. "She told me: 'Go home and write a proposal.' And then here comes the hurricane and I'm thinking: 'Well, my current home is a lot more interesting than my former home all of a sudden.' "

This month marks Katrina's third anniversary, yet Reed's book is less about the lead-up and aftermath of the storm and its devastation and more about life: the varied nature of it, the value of it, and ultimately, the uncertainty of it. She was lucky: Hers wasn't one of the families which had had a roof torn off like a pull-tab, nor did she have to sit in the purgatory of the Superdome as all that water that rushed through, carrying away with it all manner of shrubbery, houses, bodies and dreams.

But all of that plays a part -- it has to. It's what happens when your life becomes entwined with a place as curious as New Orleans. "The House on First Street" is not just about Reed's slapstick-esque struggle with rehabbing her house pre-storm with men-for-hire -- "A sort of 'Year in Provence' meets 'The Poseidon Adventure' as one friend put it," she cracks, in her mentholated, party-girl drawl. It is about how the meaning of house, home and family redefined itself for her over time. Reed's book tackles what is often difficult to quantify: the stitching-together of a life that doesn't follow a traditional path; the gradations of privilege; a widening understanding of community. Writing the book "helped me make sense about how I got seduced by the city, and how I got seduced by my husband and, I guess, seduced by the idea of a house."

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A city unlike any other

New Orleans is Reed's adopted home. A native of Greenville, Miss., her affair with the Big Easy began as a teenager. "New Orleans was always our far more storied older sister to the south," she writes early on in "The House on First Street," "a genuinely cosmopolitan city, and one where everything, from world-class restaurants to transvestite hookers, was available." Some say it's the juxtapositions -- church and debauch; chastity and corruption; have and have-not -- but things happen in New Orleans that don't happen anywhere else.

By her 20s, she'd become what locals refer to as "a regular out-of-towner," there to partake in the sort of music and food and excess that only New Orleans could lay out on a table -- and expect you to save room for seconds or thirds. Years later, as a contributing editor at Vogue and Newsweek, Reed had an apartment and a life in Manhattan and began to think about residence -- her version of residence, anyway -- after "falling hard for a man I knew I shouldn't have," and hearing herself tell someone late-night at a party that she was coming back to cover the historic gubernatorial race among then-incumbent Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer III, ex-Klansman David Duke and three-termer Edwin Edwards staging "his final comeback."

Whether it was the lover, the governor's race or the city itself that pulled her back in 1991, Reed wasn't so sure. But one thing was for certain, she'd missed being in the South. "Simple things," she writes, "like riding around in a big car with the air conditioning blowing and the radio blaring and all the windows rolled down. . . . It felt like home because it was."

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