Reviewed by Mac M.
Tom Piazza riffs like a jazz musician in his novel City of Refuge, mixing angry and discordant phrases with smooth and harmonious ones. Underneath the ebb and flow of these melodies, his themes of home and identity pulse like a heartbeat.
City of Refuge examines the lives of two New Orleans families in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina. SJ Williams lives in the doomed Lower Ninth Ward with his sister and nephew; Craig Donaldson and his family live in a middle class enclave across town. With the deadly storm bearing down, the Donaldson’s decamp the city while SJ and his relatives hunker down. Everything changes when the levees break and baptize the city in grimy, unholy water. SJ’s family is torn apart, packed and shipped to opposite ends of the country, while Craig’s family escapes to Chicago, together. Emptiness and confusion plague Craig and SJ as they try to patch together a life separate from New Orleans, each worried that their identities will disintegrate like the city they long for.
With stark and brutal language, Piazza filters the tragedy of Katrina through the prism of Craig and SJ’s struggles to define their lives. The characters are so familiar that the reader must ponder the same questions of home and identity. True to the jazz feel of the book, though, Piazza creates a wide range of experiences in his characters. They strike out in every direction like solo improvisations on a theme. In the end, there is room for everyone, refuge for all in this tune.