OCTOBER 1, 2015
FIRST ENTERING the popular lexicon in the 1940s, the term hipster has evolved over the last 75 years. In his 1957 essay “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer describes a white subculture that immerses itself in African-American culture as an antidote to the stultifying boredom of the suburbs, affecting black dress and slang. Yet as different as Mailer’s jazz-listening urbanites might seem from today’s “hipster,” whose cultural signifiers are predominantly white, both subcultures have a distinct relationship to appropriation. At the heart of Mailer’s Thanatos-obsessed essay lies the question of authenticity, which difficult to define quality Mailer locates in black culture, and that remains a fetish in an age of post-indie irony. “The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger,” Mailer writes, suggesting that this proximity to peril provides the impetus for a new American existentialism — the Hip — wherein lies the only possible salvation for suburban whites whose impulses (and especially their sexual urges, of course) have been blunted by middle-class comfort. Sixty years later, influenced in part by Mailer’s thinking (though his essay hasn’t aged particularly well), a generation of Americans have reversed the migration their parents made, displacing the African-American residents mired in inner cities by decades of discriminatory housing practices, in essence performing a literal appropriation. As metropolitan areas become increasingly gentrified, entire second- and third-tier cities come to stand for a lost authenticity.
Throughout its history — but especially since Hurricane Katrina reminded the rest of the nation it existed — New Orleans has had the dubious distinction of being America’s most “authentic” city. Long a home to Southern bohemians, the city attracted its share of beatniks and jazz buffs during the mid-20th century. Especially since the storm, the Big Easy is also no stranger to the millennial iteration of the hipster.
Billed as the first of a series that will feature criminologist Bobby Delery, Michael Allen Zell’s Run Baby Run (Lavender Ink, 2015) uses the serialized crime novel to dissect urban New Orleans in the years following Hurricane Katrina. On one level, a delightful romp through a landscape populated by con men, gangsters, career criminals, and lowlifes of every kind, it reinforces stereotypes of “authentic” New Orleans: a city where everyone is on the grift. In part because it borrows so much from Chester Himes, the first canonical African-American writer of crime fiction, Run Baby Run amounts to homage and an act of appropriation. Fortunately, Zell demonstrates a gallows humor and a fine ear for dialogue worthy of the great practitioners of his genre. He delivers a successful entertainment, taking a buzz saw to the glamorous city New Orleans has purported to have become since Katrina, shining a light on the city’s myth, and, more globally, on the myth of authenticity.
The book begins with the appearance of a relatively minor character whose pasty white skin and absurd mustache mark him as a hipster of the 21st-century variety; in fact, he’s come to New Orleans in search of that elusive quality, authenticity, and like most of the other characters in the book, he leads a double life:
Few in his known world as Tyler had any idea that he also did graffiti writing. Though he was the owner of a nice Marigny double shotgun house, in which he occupied both sides, Tyler craved his world as Toes. Skateboarding around rough neighborhoods. Graffiti writing. It was like the New York he wasn’t allowed to have growing up.
As on the nose as the caricature of Tyler/Toes might seem to a New Orleans resident, one wonders how the satire translates to an outsider, someone who might not know the evolution of shotgun doubles from duplexes occupied by working-class families to single-family (or single-resident) homes occupied by the gentry. Nevertheless, while throughout its history New Orleans has touted itself as being unlike any other major American city, like most, it experienced a massive white migration to the suburbs in the 1960s, and today it’s experiencing an influx of mostly white transplants. Change the architecture, and Zell could just as easily be talking about Pittsburgh or Oakland — and in every one of those places, 1970s Manhattan provides a touchstone for the vast cultural transformation that is taking place.
By contrast, when Delery enters the narrative in the third chapter, we understand that he’s the real deal. Why? He’s studying a framed poster of the cover of jazzman Donald Byrd’s Donald Byrd and 125th St., N.Y.C. on his otherwise bare apartment wall. A native son of New Orleans, Delery works as a criminologist — an academic, he’s been hired by Tulane University after teaching for years at the University of Chicago, hence his move home — and in a rather improbable premise, he’s been recruited to work with the chronically short-staffed New Orleans Police Department to help it deal with the crime wave that seems a fact of life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, just as it was before the storm. Commander Edwin Jones wakes Delery with a phone call: “The general black New Orleans cadence was a beautiful thing. Despite being woken up, Delery felt home already. His soul rode the waves of inflection, even Jones’ severe sounding version.” In part because his prose communicates genuine love for New Orleans — both the myth and the thing itself — Zell accomplishes quite a lot with a wink and a nudge. Would a major metropolitan police department (even one as monumentally dysfunctional as the NOPD) keep an academic on retainer and send him door-to-door questioning potential witnesses after a car wreck? As the book picks up steam, we cease to care about such quibbles.
As it turns out, we don’t need to know much about what Delery is doing in New Orleans, nor do we need to know about his arrangement with the NOPD. The plot revolves around some missing money, the men who stole it, the French Quarter gangsters who are looking for it, and the various denizens of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward who come into contact with it. In the tradition of Chandler and Himes, the plot seems incidental to Zell’s project: to catalog the characters Delery and the missing money encounter before Delery “solves” the case, which he does largely by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. Throughout, Delery (or Zell) editorializes on matters that might or might not resonate for readers outside New Orleans, including Delery’s mother’s history lesson about the William Frantz Elementary School, the public school where Ruby Bridges crossed the color line when the city’s schools were desegregated: “‘The city would’ve changed the school name, Bobby,’ she said, ‘but you keep the name if there’s history. They only change the name if they want to forget the history.’” Reopened as a charter school since the storm — and renamed — the former William Frantz Elementary seems an example of the kind of erasure that happens all too often in New Orleans, especially in the parts of the city Zell writes about, which don’t often figure into the popular iconography.
Run Baby Run careens off madly in one direction and then another, following one minor character for several pages before the narrative abruptly picks up another, doing justice to a whole panoply of New Orleans residents — many of whom don’t look like the author, or presumably talk like him, either. Like the best crime fiction, the story invests deeply in setting, and it succeeds by virtue of its author’s palpable love for New Orleans and the people who live there, especially the people who lived there before Hurricane Katrina and are still struggling to survive in the city New Orleans started to become after the storm. To my admittedly inexpert ear, the passages presented in dialect capture many of the idioms particular to the city, and the book’s use of absurdity as a plot device seems appropriate for a city whose very existence sometimes seems absurd. (Don’t believe me? Check out Richard Campanella’s Bienville’s Dilemma or Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City.) In that respect, Chester Himes — whose crime novels amount to sly, surreal twists on the genre — seems an appropriate source. I also enjoy some of the lighter touches Zell brings to the book: a paragraph-length description of a character that compares him to numerous varieties of potato and culminates in a description of his demeanor as “starchy,” for instance.
In some respects, the book adds up to New Orleans dialectic, with Delery mediating between the inauthentic, as personified by pasty white Toes, and the authentic, as personified by the book’s African-American characters. Therein lies a problem, for if the book venerates black culture as “authentic,” and derides white culture as being inauthentic, it perpetuates a trope that goes back to Mailer and beyond. Moreover, because the novel borrows from Himes, comparisons are inevitable — and sometimes, Run Baby Run comes up lacking. In Himes’s Harlem, the preachers all turned out to be criminals, if not cult leaders or perverts, yet one memorable scene in an African-American church in Run Baby Run paints its congregants as the salt of the earth. Himes also shattered the racial binary, never describing characters as black or white, but rather as red, yellow, brown, and every shade in between. Not that Zell should match Himes’s nihilism — few writers can — and not that he should be as subversive about race as Himes was. Yet those are the stakes Zell sets himself. Not even the plot twist he saves up for the end resolves these issues, though it comes close.
The best crime novels have always stood for big ideas. They also have a kind of plausible deniability, since they’re only supposed to be entertainments. Yet as Graham Greene knew, entertainments can tell us more than the weightiest philosophical tomes. Not that there’s anything wrong with Zell’s occasional incoherence. At his best — for my money, 1969’s Blind Man with a Pistol — Himes bordered on incoherence himself.
As any outsider who has spent time in the South knows, the stereotypes seem true and not true, all at once. This goes doubly for a city like New Orleans, where corruption has taken on a whole new veneer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, often wearing a more respectable mask, such as the recent case of federal relief money funding a high-end food court in a low-income neighborhood. For all that the much-touted recovery has changed the face of New Orleans, the people Zell writes about haven’t experienced the same upturn we saw celebrated on the storm’s painful 10-year anniversary, and they won’t. Think what you will of Delery’s authenticity, or Zell’s — almost in spite of itself, Run Baby Run has the patent ring of truth, and if its protagonist resembles Mailer’s archetype of the mid-20th-century hipster, consider that Delery is neither sex- nor death-obsessed enough to fill the bill. Rather, like many jazz buffs — or for that matter, like many aficionados of New Orleans history — he’s an archivist, a collector of stories. That makes him — and this novel — worthy of the great city that inspired them both.