“C’mon, Let’s Go Down to That Stupid Second Line”:
A Review of In the Land of What Now (short stories) by Helen Krieger, New Orleans: The Hatchery Media, 2010, and Flood Streets (film) directed by Joseph Meissner, New Orleans: The Hatchery Media, 2011.
I started writing this review on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Isaac was stalled over New Orleans. The new 10-billion dollar levee system appeared to be working even though Isaac’s storm surge was only two or three feet lower than what Katrina brought, but I couldn’t help but remember the morning after Katrina made landfall, when first reports sounded like the worst danger had passed. On August 29, 2005, the situation rapidly moved to disaster. The uneasy feeling this August 29—waiting to find out if New Orleans had been spared another disaster—underscored, for me, the deep significance of the title of Helen Krieger’s collection of short stories, In the Land of What Now. A few days ago I literally was holding my breath in the face of that question—what now? Today, the danger to New Orleans has passed (though, according to CNN Wire Staff, 13,000 Louisiana homes were damaged by Isaac), but the question at the heart of Krieger’s stories and movie reverberate (and will continue to do so)—for the survivors of Katrina, for the survivors of Isaac, and for all of us: we are in the land of what now.
One fine ironic detail about this title is that it is a phrase spoken (in the collection’s title story) by Ruth, a paranoid schizophrenic homeless woman about whom the narrator’s boss says, “my heart goes out to her, it really does, but that’s not part of our study.”
Thank goodness, it is part of Krieger’s art.
The title and the short stories in Krieger’s collection are centrally about the never-ending quality of post-X realities. Ruth’s story and her raging line are set before Katrina even changes the world; this fact, in a way, marks the ambition of the collection as more than a statement about Katrina’s effects. The drama of Krieger’s work is not about Katrina per se, but about lives altered by trauma. In that sense, Ruth, battered into insanity by the modern world even before the environmental disaster, is the perfect spokesperson for Krieger’s larger ambitions. A hurricane, even Katrina, ends; the systemic failures that predated Katrina, that made Katrina’s effects so much larger than they might have been, that destroy people in myriad ways last and last and last.
Krieger’s stories and the movie based on them, Flood Streets, focus on New Orleanians and how they grapple with living in a condition of continual unsurety and insecurity. In both written and filmed versions we meet an array of characters whose primary shared reality is their unsettledness, their lack of clarity—both personal and communal—about their identities and ambitions, about what is possible and how to find answers to any of these issues. One beautiful terrible irony is that the character closest to any such clarity is the film’s Ruby, a homeless black woman with end-stage cancer squatting in a flood damaged house and growing marijuana in the back yard, which she uses both to manage her pain and to buy companionship from the rather feckless real estate agent, Madeline. (The book’s version of Ruby, named Barbara, is a bit less “wise woman”-ish, and the book’s real estate agent is a bit more cold-blooded in her use of Ruby’s pot. I will return to tonal differences between the two versions below.)
On one level, a major pleasure of both book and film is a “welcome to the monkey house” quality. At every turn the characters prove themselves to be “characters,” and the audience gets to gawk at the strange inhabitants of a strange land. Who wouldn’t at least smile at the image of a young female dental student cradling her male patient’s head between her breasts in order to see into his mouth? In the book, the narrator Matt says, “I shifted, worried I’d get hard in the middle of the clinic. Did she know what was going on? Or were big breasted women so used to them brushing against things they hardly noticed?” In the movie, Matt does not shift, and the director lets the uncomfortable visual humor speak for itself. There are many moments in both book and film that offer such humor, but if hilarity at the expense of absurd or exotic characters were all, however, neither book not movie would be as powerful and engaging as they are.
While Krieger’s stories are New Orleans stories, for sure, and that is enough to make them important, but another mark of their success is that their particularity, their vivid moments become artifacts or emblems of more complex truths. Relationships can be funny, absurd, groan-inducing, all-too-familiar to laugh, and emotionally moving at the same time. Characters can be boorish and lovable. Truths can be as local as the dead dog Madeline finds decaying under the mold-covered sofa in a flood destroyed house and as universal as the fear of our own mortality. This what-now land is much more than “New Orleans 15 months after Katrina” (as the movie’s subtitle informs us), but it is America post-Katrina, post-9/11, post Iraq, post economic disaster, post-loss-of-faith in our institutions of stability. In this world, who we are, who we can be are more pressing universal issues, no longer the exclusive purview of slacker narratives whether written or filmed.
Another reason why both of Krieger’s works deserve attention side by side (rather than one or the other) is that the versions have striking differences. I would argue that both are worthy of attention even while it is also true that both suffer weaknesses—but very different ones. The two together make a stronger artistic statement than either alone. Of course, with any book-to-movie translation we expect the different strengths of the respective media to be evident. A movie is always more visually powerful than a written text. A novel or a series of connected short stories is usually able to represent the psychology of the characters more fully. These expectations are true of Krieger and Meissner’s works. Additionally, In the Land is both more ambitious in its reach but more flawed as a coherent work than the more thoroughly interwoven character and plot elements in Flood Streets. In the Land is considerably darker in overall tone (I count that as a strong positive), but it is also more fragmented in terms of narrative cohesion, and, at times, the writing is weaker. Its core stories, those that form the heart of the movie, are more than worthy of attention; the movie draws its power from them and hones them to even finer effect at times. Ruby, for example, is drawn more perfectly in the movie. But Ruby/Barbara is ultimately a flat character in both, one who exists for functional effect, and that effect is carried off more effectively, more completely in the movie. For example, Ruby’s death in the film is romanticized; she is made more thoroughly “in control” of her own fate even in facing her unwinnable circumstances. In the book, Barbara is simply found dead by a stranger. One can argue the book is truer in that moment because it is less “beautiful,” less moving, less crafted for artistic effect. The most important characters are psychologically more complex in the collection of stories, and, partly because the writing is less fully integrated, their stories are messier, more face to face with the indeterminacy that is so central to both book and film. That said, I must admit in the film the characters come across as more likeable, the time spent with them more pleasant. That may be true partly because of the collection’s uneven qualities. The Ruby/Barbara story is almost ruined by being intertwined with a surreal dissociative narrative of the speaker’s heavy-handed symbolic story of being lost in an airport not knowing where she came from or what her destination is. That half of the final story simply doesn’t carry its weight and the parts don’t work together to any larger end.
Flood Streets, written by Krieger and her husband Joseph Meissner and directed by Meissner, is a much more polished production. One could argue whether that effect is entirely positive in artistic terms, but it clearly is more commercial. Even the title does more work toward marketing to a specific audience. In the film, the stories are re-written to provide a more coherent vision of post-Katrina New Orleans. The tales are all in the now of the film—15 months after Katrina (in the short stories time and even place vary). The major characters are re-imagined to varying degrees, re-combined, re-named in some cases, and their identities and stories are interconnected with each other more fully; the film’s themes are somewhat simplified and they resonate with and against each other more clearly.
In Flood Streets, Liz, the artist/waitress partner of Matt, a frustrated “part-time media mogul” we see fantasizing about an old lover newly returned to town and the potential of hooking up with his buxom/sweet dental student, seems caught in a spiral of quotidian inch by inch ennui and disconnection. But then she becomes the film’s most unifying character (and symbol) when she dons a Baron Samedi costume and roller skates down to “the stupid second line” in the movie’s penultimate scene. Liz, like the Baron, embodies both life and death. She is newly pregnant, seemingly on the edge of breaking up with her boyfriend, seemingly defeated in her artistic ambitions, and yet she is—literally and figuratively—full of life. On skates, she virtually floats past graffiti-adorned urban landscape and Katrina wreckage that have become, almost, mere exotic background. She is on her way to join her lovable slacker/seeker friends in the “African American New Orleans tradition, part parade, part jazz funeral but nobody died” of the Second Line for Social Justice and Solidarity that has been advertised on homemade flyers throughout the film. The characters dance down the street to the sounds Preservation Hall jazz and Russian gypsy music. I defy anyone watching to not want to rush on down to the Second Line yourself and link arms with the dancers.
In the end, Flood Streets is slicker, more professional, and more coherent than In the Land of What Now—but it is also “lighter.” The ambition of the stories takes us into more threatening visions of relationship. The endings in the book are less predictable, less “happy” than in the movie. In the movie we still see the difficulties of intimacy, the frustrations of dealing day to day with varieties of insecurity, the big question marks hanging over our heads, but in the movie the lovers reunite at the Second Line, their mutual appreciation reborn by the news of Liz’s pregnancy, and the next morning The Times-Picayune finally shows up on their doorstep for the first time since Katrina.
Reviewed by Michael McClure
Michael Francis McClure is an
Associate Professor of English at
Virginia State University.
One of the editors of NOLA DIASPORA,
he has also co-authored an apocalyptic novel, 2020, with Scott A. Leonard.
Their nom de plume is Frank McArthur.