Sunday, August 3, 2014

Louisiana Lit: Katrina in a Nutshell

Titling a post "Katrina in a Nutshell" may sound grandiose.

But when I read the first chapter in James Lee Burke's book, Tin Roof Blowdown, I thought it might be one of the most powerful pieces of literature I'd ever read. When I say "powerful," I mean that in the sense of receiving a punch full in the face.

An excerpt from that chapter:

In the dream I [Dave Robicheaux] lie on a poncho liner [in Vietnam], dehydrated with blood expander, my upper thigh and side torn by wounds that could have been put there by wolves. I am convinced I will die .... Next to me lies a Negro corporal, wearing only his trousers and boots, .... his torso split open like a gaping red zipper from his armpit down to his groin, the damage to his body so grievous, traumatic, and terrible to see or touch he doesn't understand what has happened to him. 

"I got the spins, Loot. How I look?" he says. 

"We've got the million-dollar ticket, Doo-doo. We're Freedom Bird bound," I reply.  ... 

The Jolly Green [helicopter] loads up and lifts off, with Doo-doo and twelve other wounded on board. I stare upward at its strange rectangular shape, its blades whirling against a lavender sky, and secretly I resent the fact that I and others are left behind to wait on the slick and the chance that serious numbers of NVA are coming through the grass. Then I witness the most bizarre and cruel and seemingly unfair event of my entire life. 

As the Jolly Green climbs above the river and turns toward the China Sea, a solitary RPG streaks at a forty-five-degree angle from the canopy below and explodes inside the bay. The ship shudders once and cracks in half, its fuel tanks blooming into an enormous orange fireball. The wounded on board are coated with flame as they plummet downward toward the water. 

Their lives are taken incrementally - by flying shrapnel and bullets, by liquid flame on their skin, and by drowning in a river. In effect, they are forced to die three times. A medieval torturer could not have devised a more diabolic fate. 

..... When I wake from the dream, ...assure myself that the dream is only a dream, that if it were real I would have heard sounds and not simply seen images that are the stuff of history now and are not considered of interest by those who are determined to re-create them. 

... When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.  

But that was before Katrina. That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature. 

 There's nothing I can add to that.

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