Higher Ground, by James Nolan
Review by Philip K. Jason
James Nolan was best known as a poet, poetry translator and critic before publishing an award-winning short story collection, Perpetual Care and Other Stories, in 2008. Higher Ground, winner of the William Faulkner-Wisdom Gold Medal in the novel category, adds another dimension to his literary achievement.
This dazzling debut novel set in post-Katrina New Orleans pays both serious and satiric homage to the variety of survivors who never left, came back or simply showed up in the storm-ravaged city. The title suggests the need to rise above the vulnerable, flood-prone elevations, and the need to rise above the degradation and corruption that followed the hurricane.
People need to find out how to get on with getting on: they need higher spiritual and moral ground. As well, they need to create some redemptive joy out of the madness and mayhem.
Nicole Naquin has moved back to New Orleans after decades away. She is escaping a failed marriage and is attempting to assist her aging mother, the cantankerous Miss Gertie, who has been reduced to drug dealing.
Employed (actually underemployed) by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Nicole is already despondent when two calamities befall her on the same day. Her brother, Marky, is killed in a drive-by shooting, and she plows into someone’s FEMA trailer.
That someone is Kelly Canyon, until recently, a reasonably successful middle-class homeowner. Kelly is now headed for divorce and counted among the FEMA-dependent consequences of Katrina. In 1975, he was Nicole’s teenage heartthrob. Once fate slams them together, each glimpses the possibility of a new life — a true life — an alternative to the life each had the ironic good fortune to escape.
Though the storm’s aftermath has laid them both low, it also seems to have halted the process of decline in their lives brought on by bad choices and false values. Having bottomed out, there is only one direction left for them to take, perhaps together.
Killed in the same drive-by episode that felled Marky Naquin is Latrome Batiste, a high school student who appears to have been collateral damage. But was he?
Two very different investigators work the case. One is Lieutenant Vinnie Panarello, a homicide detective who is under investigation for shooting someone in the course of an arrest. The other is Gary Cherry, a San Francisco hippie import who made a home in New Orleans dealing softer drugs while setting Miss Gertie up in business with illegal “script stuff like Valium, Vicodin and Xanax.” The two investigators are in each other’s way, but, despite different motives, end up working almost in tandem.
While the mystery holds interest and is managed skillfully, it is not the center of attention. The real attraction of Higher Ground is Nolan’s representation, in high-powered episodes, of the sensory and spiritual New Orleans he so obviously loves. Drag queens, double-dealers, jobless and homeless strugglers, self-interested politicos, artists, religious seekers, cripples and crazed psychologists do the dance of self-expression and survival. This kaleidoscope of human interaction is captured in the lens of a mayoral campaign and Mardi Gras, and the yearning of the characters is alternately stoked and smothered by the ruin Katrina leaves in her wake, and the bureaucratic infection called FEMA that pervades what remains.
Higher Ground abounds in dark humor and comical hi-jinks, as every kind of indignity, sinfulness and bereavement seeks and approaches a life-affirming antidote and a shaky salvation. In Nolan’s New Orleans, despair parties on.