Crocodile Rock

Oh, Louisiana.

My beautiful, beautiful state. Louisiana is basically a lush, fertile state chock full of important natural resources, and also sports the nickname “Sportsmen’s Paradise,” because outdoor sports–hunting, fishing, etc.–are abundant here. Lots of hunting, lots of fishing, that sort of thing.

But Louisiana also is known for corruption, being backwards in many ways, and some truly bizarre politics/politicians. It’s easy to say that Louisianans have a very cynical view of politics and politicians–no one is really surprised when one of our elected officials is caught doing something criminal or morally questionable; the basic presumption is that they’re all crooks and liars unless proven otherwise. We can never forget that one gubernatorial election featured bumper stickers and campaign slogans that read Vote for the crook, it’s important–when Governor Edwards, convicted for taking bribes in office, was running again after serving time and his opponent was notorious racist and former Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

And for the record, that election was in the early 1990’s–not that long ago.

As I said yesterday, I watched a four hour documentary on Hulu this past week called Murder in the Bayou, about what is called the “Jeff Davis 8”–eight women murdered over a period of less than three years in and around the Jefferson Davis Parish village of Jennings. The women all  had issues with drugs, and also came from really poor backgrounds. The documentary was interesting, and seemed geared to the idea that there was a serial killer operating in the parish–and for some reason, the cops simply couldn’t track said killer down, and eventually the killings stopped.

I also remembered that there was a book about the murders, with the same title, by New Orleans journalist Ethan Brown, and I had a copy. So, after I finished watching the documentary Friday afternoon, I got the book down from the shelves and looked to see if there were any photographs included. There weren’t–just the flyer with the reward posted, with photos of all the victims on it. I started reading…

murder in the bayou

On May 20, 2005, Jerry Jackson, a soft-spoken slim African-American retiree with a short salt-and-pepper Afro, prepared to cast a fishing line from a hulking bridge over the Grand Marais Canal on the outskirts of Jennings in southwest Louisiana. Jackson peered down at the muddy rush below, the corroded, cylindrical rain pipes along the canal belching water, the collapsed pedestrian bridge far out in the distance. As he prepped his fishing line, Jackson imagined the catch that day, white perch, a small bass with a strong spine that’s so abundant in Louisiana it’s the state’s official freshwater fish. In low-lying southwest Louisiana, where rain is constantly siphoned to prevent flooding, drainage canals are as common as the perch. These canals provide sustenance for poor Louisianans for whom fishing is both a generations-old tradition and a day-to-day necessity. For hobbyists such as Jackson, who made the approximately ten-mile trip to Jennings from his cramped trailer on a dead-end street in nearby Welsh, drainage canal democratize fishing. Expensive shrimp boats and fishing equipment aren’t necessary–all one needs to do is drop a line into the water.

As Jackson peered deeper into the Grand Marais Canal, he spied the outline of a human body. “It had come up on the news that someone had stole some mannequins,” Jackson told me, “so I thought that one of the mannequins ended up in the water somehow.” Jackson focused his eyes on the figure. “I saw flies, and mannequins don’t attract flies.”

It didn’t take me long to get into the book to realize there was information, crucial information, about the victims in the book that wasn’t included in the documentary; in fact, the documentary left a lot of important information out. Yes, the women all had addiction issues, but they also were sex workers–turning to sex work to either get drugs, or to get the money to buy drugs. The police didn’t cooperate much with Mr. Brown, and the sister of one of the victims played a very prominent role in the documentary; she was only mentioned by name once in the book. Brown also shared the information that many of the victims were witnesses to other crimes, and theorized they were all killed to silence them–and that it wasn’t a serial killer after all. Brown also isn’t convinced completely that the police were so inept and incompetent to handle these kinds of investigations (something that came up a lot in the documentary), but that the parish police were actually corrupt, involved in the drug trade, and connecting all the dots also led to a peripheral involvement by a powerful politician. Naturally, the police and the politician disagree with Mr. Brown’s theories and conclusions…but he also includes, in the book, other crimes in the parish that may or may not have been connected to the murders, as well as corruption within the police department; things that were not in the documentary.

One of the things that struck me, while watching and again when reading the book, is how tragic the cycle of poverty is in these small towns, not just in Louisiana, but across the country. The class divide–marked in Jennings by literally railroad tracks that separate the good part of town from the bad–is truly staggering; I would imagine it’s much the same in big cities only not as obvious. The poor and uneducated people in places like Jennings are trapped in a terrible cycle of poverty that they cannot seem to break, which is truly sad, and the disruptive nature of the families they were born into doesn’t help much, either. And once someone starts spiraling down into drug addiction, there’s nowhere to turn to for help getting off the drugs…and there’s no money for rehab, which is incredibly expensive.

I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to stuck like that, with no hope for the future.

The book is very well written, and it’s not terribly long; I read it in one day, and it’s a terrific read. I do recommend it, and I also recommend watching the documentary as well. I’m curious about why they chose to leave some stuff out of the documentary that’s in the book–perhaps it has something to do with both using the same title but not adapting the book or using it as source material, or something along those lines–but it’s very interesting to see the two very different takes on the murders.

And yes, learning more about these murders did, in fact, give me an idea for another Chanse novel; the first idea I’ve had for a Chanse novel since I wrote Murder in the Arts District. I can easily see fictionalizing this story, with Chanse as the investigating private eye…or someone else, really; it doesn’t have to be Chanse, and the issues at play here–the disposability of drug addicted sex workers, class distinction, and corruption in the parish power structure–are things I would love to explore in a novel.

Like I don’t have anything else to write already, right?

And now back to the spice mines.

La La (Means I Love You)

Good morning. It’s a lovely Sunday morning in New Orleans, as I look at the start of a relatively easy and short week for me at work. Good Friday is a paid holiday for me, so I only have four days to get through, and I have short days on both Monday and Thursday (horrifying long days on Tuesday and Wednesday, of course), so it’s kind of a ‘win some lose some’ kind of week. I ended up not writing much yesterday; instead I read Underground Airlines (which I am enjoying) and when Paul got home from his errands, I made dinner and we watched Rogue One and then the first two episodes of Five Came Back, a wonderful documentary about five Hollywood film directors (Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens) who spent World War II making documentaries about the war rather than directing films in Hollywood. It’s narrated by Meryl Streep, and is based on the book of the same title by Mark Harris (who also wrote the documentary). It’s very well done; and it does a really good job of capturing the era it’s about, while at the same time not only exposing how easy it is for film to be used as propaganda, but raising questions about the ethics of making propaganda during a time of war. As we as Americans are currently wrestling with the notion of news as propaganda, and how to tell what is real and what is not–a horrifying place to be, quite frankly–and how the news was controlled for the American public during the Second World War to keep them behind the war effort (which was prodigious) as well as buying war bonds to finance it, it raises difficult questions about truth, ethics, and the media. I cannot recommend it enough; I’m really looking forward to viewing the final episode.

I will undoubtedly spend today in a mix of cleaning, writing, and reading. My friend Stuart is in town, and hopefully we’ll get to have lunch or an early dinner together today, if not, it will be tomorrow.

Underground Airlines, like The Underground Railroad, is not an easy book to read. I’ve never read much alternate history (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle being one of the few exceptions), and that’s what this book is; alternate history, and one that, as you learn more about the ‘history’ of the United States and its ‘peculiar institution’ the deeper you get into the book, is terribly disturbing because you can see how it might have gone this way.

American history, as it pertains to questions of race and equality, is difficult; and the truth of American history, as opposed to the deeply sanitized version we are taught in public school (or at least, the deeply ‘rah-rah-rah’ version I was taught in the 1960’s, predicated on the manifest destiny of white Europeans to take dominion over the Americas while eradicating the natives and enslaving Africans, required a lot of unlearning; I told one of my co-workers the other day that I’ve spent most of my adult life unlearning everything I was raised to believe while re-educating myself on the truth), is actually kind of ugly. I remember reading James Michener’s Centennial when I was in my teens, and realizing everything I’d been taught, read, or seen in movies about the native Americans, and their clash with white Europeans, was actually incredibly biased against the native ‘savages’. (If you’re interested in re-educating yourself on American history, please read Howard Zinn’s histories of the United States, starting with A People’s History of the United States.)

Anyway, when Underground Airlines was released, there was some controversy, given the subject matter and that author Ben H. Winters was white and writing from the perspective of an African-American who worked as a runaway slave catcher. Questions of cultural appropriation often dog the work of white people who write from outside their own experience; yet at the same time there is also a clamor for diversity within fiction and there has long been a Twitter hashtag #weneeddiversebooks. I don ‘t think–and I could be wrong–that the problem is so much cultural appropriation as it is that authors of color do not have the same easy access to publishing that white people do; it’s easier for a white author to get a book published with a person of color as the main character than it is for an author of color to do so. I’ve personally enjoyed seeing the progress made by film and television to cast people of color; when I was a kid I would have loved to find books or television shows or films where gay men weren’t tragic figures doomed to die, or the butt of the joke, or figures of contempt; I can only imagine the positive impact this is having on young minority children to be able to see characters like themselves on films and television shows, or finding them in books.

This is not a bad thing.

The book is very well-written, and I am enjoying it tremendously, but it’s not an easy read, as I said earlier. I had always, as I’ve said before, intended to read it and The Underground Railroad back-to-back, to get a sense of comparison and to see how the differences between how an author of color deals with the issues of race and white supremacy vs how a white author does. Both books have made me think about these issues–the racial divide/conflict that is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society and culture, and how it always has been there from the very beginning.

That’s not a bad thing. Being made to think, to reexamine your values and beliefs, to unlearn things you were taught that are wrong and to reeducate yourself is never a bad thing. I think we, as a country and a society and a culture, can do with some reexamination.

Heavy thoughts for a Sunday morning before I head back into the spice mines.

Here’s a happy Sunday morning hunk for you, Constant Reader.

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