Reviewed by Sam Slaughter
Is it too late for this?
That was the first question that came to mind upon opening Thomas Zigal’s fifth novel Many Rivers to Cross. Is a novel set among the wreckage of post-Katrina New Orleans published in 2013 still relevant almost decade after the tragedy?
MRTC follows various members of the Grant family as they try to escape the disastrous environs of New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina. In separate narratives that eventually (and for the most part) intertwine, we follow Vietnam War veteran Hodge Grant, who travels from his farm in Opelousas back to New Orleans to attempt to rescue his daughter, Deirdre, and her two children. Hodge brings the reluctant Duval—the father of Deirdre’s children—along to help with the rescue. Separately, MRTC follows PJ, Hodge’s son, as he attempts to break out of jail and then find his way out of the city, hunted at all times by the law.
Along the way, the Grant clan meets a wide range of New Orleanians, from hoodlums and escaped convicts who have as many prospects outside the city as inside to crooked cops looking to loot as much as the hoodlums to kind-hearted souls that are willing, in the spirit of good Southern Hospitality, to do whatever they can to help anyone and everyone. For good measure, Zigal tosses in one or two decent civil servants, meant to provide shades of hope for the characters over the course of the novel. All in all, though, the secondary and tertiary characters are mere caricatures. We learn just enough about each one to understand why he or she is there, but not enough to make them seem as if they are involved for any reason other than Zigal’s need for someone for Hodge (or Duval or Dierdre or PJ) to talk to. A more interesting supporting character is Robert Guyton, one of the good guys who provides a romantic distraction for Deirdre for chunks of the novel.
Most of the main characters have not-so-subtle issues that cause readers to alternately hate and love them. Duval and PJ especially steal this limelight. It is hard to go for very many pages and not change your opinion of either of the young men. The polar opposite feelings that Zigal creates leads to a dissonance that could leave some readers annoyed. There was no subtle layering of finely-tuned characters; instead Zigal floods the reader’s emotions with extremes, thus taking away from the novel’s power.
Zigal’s prose is bright. His narrative remains fluid throughout and there is a sense of restrained urgency behind his words that compels the reader to keep going. Even when the sun comes up in the novel, you are given the sense that what is normally comforting and a sign of hope is far from it here. If you stop reading, your mind will probably wander back to the plight of Hodge or his family, wondering both what will happen next and when you’ll get to find out.
It is clear, too, that Zigal did his research. This is both a boon and a drawback. While Zigal tracks the hour-by-hour movement of floodwater in the time just after the hurricane hit, his cramming of many different iconic scenes that were known to have happened in New Orleans—various human rights abuses, mainly—comes off as too much of a history lesson. There could’ve been a better balance of what Zigal chose to leave out in an effort to redirect attention back to the narrative he created.
While MRTC is solidly written and engaging, it is also only somewhat memorable. The backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans and Zigal’s research into the events that happened steal the show and take away from the narrative. Apart, the elements are both strong, but together, they do not mesh. MRTC is a good read for those who have an affinity for New Orleans or for narratives of injustice but may not hold lasting appeal for others. If you’re looking for a novel that would redefine what it means to be a novel about Hurricane Katrina, yes, it is too late for MRTC. If you are simply looking for an easy beach read that carries an undercurrent of racial issues along with it, then this is the book for you.
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