It isn’t quite “Ragtime” — but “King Zeno” is a fun read and more ambitious than most genre novels.
by Nathaniel Rich
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 386 pp., $28
This dark, panoramic thriller set in post-World War I New Orleans appears to have been inspired stylistically by the films that author Nathaniel Rich examined in his 2005 study, “San Francisco Noir.” Taking as its spine a sequence of grisly ax murders that actually happened in the Crescent City in 1918-19, “King Zeno” weaves a noir tale about a police detective haunted by his cowardice in the trenches, a Sicilian mob family, the influenza epidemic, early jazz, civic corruption and the excavation of the city’s Industrial Canal, the last of which resonates profoundly in the Katrina-struck recent history of the author’s adopted hometown.
Though not in the same league as E.L. Doctorow’s similarly fictive-historical “Ragtime” — or, for that matter, Michael Ondaatje’s haunting “Coming Through Slaughter” (about fabled trumpeter Buddy Bolden) — “King Zeno” is a fun read and more ambitious than most genre novels.
The son of ex-New York Times columnist Frank Rich and a regular contributor to The New York Times magazine, Rich is a journalist as well as a novelist. His muscular prose hums at its best when it is plainly expository, particularly while inhabiting his characters’ minds. One particularly crisp passage about a falsely accused African-American robber concludes: “Was there nothing he could do to avoid a murder charge? You could kill yourself, replied the judge.”
Rich excels at character development, painting vivid, interior portraits of his cowardly white detective, Bill Bastrop, and the aspiring but conflicted African-American jazz musician of the book’s title, Isadore Zeno. Rich’s jazz history is OK, too. Kid Ory was, indeed, still in New Orleans in 1919. Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver were not. However, Isadore’s complaint that “no one cared about jazz” in 1919 feels anachronistic, as a white band from New Orleans had already sparked the jazz craze, worldwide, in 1917. Even if Isadore were dismissive of this as cultural appropriation, he would have been aware of it.
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But that’s a quibble. More troubling is that the writing in “King Zeno” sometimes runs purple and also spills into other implausibilities, particularly the coincidence-driven plotline about Bastrop’s wartime comrade, but even more egregiously in the unexplained transformation of one of the story’s main characters. (To be more specific would be a spoiler.)
Some of this, of course, comes with the detective genre, and Rich delivers Chandleresque mannerisms with self-aware good humor: “If the violence could claim a man as strong as Obitz” — perfect name for a dead guy — “it could claim anyone, and there was no resisting its dark lullaby.” But Rich’s repeated attempts to imbue his story with deep meaning eventually make you want to shout, “OK, we get it! The canal, trenches, hell, the crime underworld, demons, layers of history. Enough, already, with the mud metaphors!”
But there’s still a lot to like here for fans of detective fiction, and of film noir and jazz. It would not be surprising if the movie rights have already been sold for a goodly sum.