A.D. New Orleans: After the Deluge
by Josh Neufeld
Pantheon, 208 pages, $24.95
Given its subject matter, and the talent of its author, I’d love nothing more than to declare that A.D. New Orleans is an excellent book, but I can’t. While it’s far from a failure and there are compelling moments, there are also too many flaws and awkward sequences to call the book anything more than a grudgingly qualified success.
A.D. opens strong, with a god’s eye view of the city as Katrina sweeps in and leaves untold destruction in its wake. It’s a devastating reminder of just how much damage the storm did.
From there Neufeld moves backward in time to chronicle the lives of five (real-life) New Orleans residents and their different reactions to the coming storm, and it’s here that the problems begin.
Chief among them is that he has a really tough time juggling all the different stories effectively. Half of the cast are quickly introduced only to pack their bags and depart, and apart from the occasional panel they don’t show up again until the very end to offer their thoughts on how the storm uprooted their lives. As a result, it’s nigh-impossible for the reader to develop any sort of connection, emotional or otherwise, to these characters.
Neufeld should have instead whittled the book down to the two characters who opted to stay in the city — the storekeeper Abbas and the counselor Denise. Their stories not only take up the bulk of the narrative, they’re the most compelling tales as well. Denise’s story in particular, with her and her family stranded outside of the convention center is nimbly handled, making it easy for the reader to imagine how hellish the reality of that situation must have been.
Another problem with the book lies in Neufeld’s depiction of the rich doctor who opts to stay. The doctor is one of the lucky few who manages to avoid calamity; his laissez-faire attitude seems to surprisingly serve him well. But Neufeld can’t mask his class consciousness here. I’m not even entirely sure he should, but his enmity for the doctor is palpable, both in the short amount of stage time he has and in what Neufeld chooses to present to the reader — the only thing the doctor can complain about is the fact that his favorite shrimp dish no longer takes the same. You get a sense that the character is callous in his approach both to the hurricane and other people’s suffering, despite the fact that he opened a clinic and made rounds immediately after the storm. Again, it’s a sense that you’re not getting a fuller picture of the individual and an unfairly colored one at that.
Speaking of color, a word must be said about Neufeld’s odd coloring choices. He’s opted to give the panels a tint that changes from blue to green to red with little rhyme or reason. It’s distracting device and only served to distance myself further from the story. I would have preferred he went with a nuanced gray tone instead.
I honestly feel bad trashing the book in this manner. Neufeld is a likeable, talented fellow and A.D. New Orleans is certainly far from a failure. There are sequences, such as when Denise narrowly misses having her ceiling fall on top of her, that work exceedingly well. But the flaws are too large and glaring for me to recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t have a deep and abiding interest in the subject matter. If you’re really jonesing for a man-on-the-street account of what it was like to live through Katrina, this will fit the bill. But that’s really all it will do.