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King Zeno

9780374716318 fc
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2018
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Natrich pableauxjohnson2

Nathaniel Rich

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New Orleans, 1918. The birth of jazz, the Spanish flu, an ax murderer on the loose. The lives of a traumatized cop, a conflicted Mafia matriarch, and a brilliant trumpeter converge—and the Crescent City gets the rich, dark, sweeping novel it so deserves.

From one of the most inventive writers of his generation, King Zeno is a historical crime novel and a searching inquiry into man’s dreams of immortality.

New Orleans, a century ago: a city determined to reshape its destiny and, with it, the nation’s. Downtown, a new American music is born. In Storyville, prostitution is outlawed and the police retake the streets with maximum violence. In the Ninth Ward, laborers break ground on a gigantic canal that will split the city, a work of staggering human ingenuity intended to restore New Orleans’s faded mercantile glory. The war is ending and a prosperous new age dawns. But everything is thrown into chaos by a series of murders committed by an ax-wielding maniac with a peculiar taste in music.

The ax murders scramble the fates of three people from different corners of town. Detective William Bastrop is an army veteran haunted by an act of wartime cowardice, recklessly bent on redemption. Isadore Zeno is a jazz cornetist with a dangerous side hustle. Beatrice Vizzini is the widow of a crime boss who yearns to take the family business straight. Each nurtures private dreams of worldly glory and eternal life, their ambitions carrying them into dark territories of obsession, paranoia, and madness.

In New Orleans, a city built on swamp, nothing stays buried long.

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An excerpt from King Zeno

MAY 26, 1918—THE IRISH CHANNEL


Navies called it instinct. Not sense, skill, talent—instinct. If it wasn’t in you, you couldn’t fake it. How to hear the truth in a lie. How to spot the shark in a crowded streetcar. How to persuade a mother to betray her son. How to locate the trigger that would make a man talk: A full revolution of the wrist? A poke to the baby skin behind the knee? A potato sack cinched around the neck? Most critical: how to figure when a person was lying to your face. In that last category he was gallingly deficient. Particularly when the person of interest was a woman. Particularly when the woman was his wife. No, that wasn’t fair—Maze had never lied to him. At least so far as he knew. If Maze had lied to him, he wouldn’t have been able to tell, so what difference did it make? This was how his brain worked, in closed circuits, always questioning itself, questioning itself questioning itself, questioning itself questioning itself questioning itself.

Two police skills Bill did have: observation and memory. They came to him conjoined like the two-headed boy, grinning from both mouths. They were loyal old companions, observation and memory, and had never abandoned him, though in the last year they had been less blessing than curse. Nineteen minutes had passed since he and Charlie Breaux had split from Obitz and Dodson, and he could remember, with photographic clarity, every person he had seen since. On Clio an emaciated bald man driving a peanut wagon, most likely asleep, bent like a tree in a storm. Two women of high school age, though assuredly unenrolled, floated across the intersection at Erato in silk gowns that brushed the rubble. Around the lakeside corner at Thalia loped an ursine man, about thirty, in a long trench coat and dark homburg. And near Terpsichore an unconscious drunk blocked the sidewalk, belly down, his cheek caked with mud. On a typical night the drunk would prompt a call to the butcher wagon. But this was no typical night for a maniac highwayman was loose.

The stillness of the street was a rebuke. But what did Bill expect? Citizens’ groups on patrol? A marching band? The families in this back-of-town neighborhood, stuck between the rock of the Irish Channel and the whirlpool of Storyville, many of them recently arrived on steamers from Naples or Queenstown, barricaded themselves inside at night, ceding the streets to the drunks, the blackguards, the thieves. Electric streetlamps supervised the major intersections but most of the bulbs had died. It was madness: the city was spending six million dollars on the excavation of a gargantuan canal to connect the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain and it couldn’t bother to maintain its streetlamps? But even when the lamps worked they gave little benefit, as the blocks were long and for great lengths suffocated by night.

Charlie’s bad leg scuffed on the gravel, creating a clumsy percussion that announced their presence to the rows of darkened houses. Step-scuff, step-scuff, step-scuff.

“I don’t like this, Billy,” said Charlie. “It’s hinky.”

“Too quiet? Too dark?”

“Too hinky.”

It was three in the morning. Bill had traveled a full day’s distance from his last sleep. He’d awoken early to provide security at a breakfast rally at City Hall for war bonds; at noon he was summoned to Annunciation and Second Street, where a six-year-old girl had been struck by a streetcar; at five, after registering the girl in Charity Hospital, he reported to the station for a briefing on the all-night patrol for the negro highwayman. That meeting was delayed by three hours, however, because Superintendent Mooney was busy interrogating Andrew Maggio, the brother of the butchered Italian grocer. Mooney made a habit of presiding over the flashiest cases, and before the highwayman spree that meant the Maggio murders. The only suspect was Andrew Maggio, a barber, who claimed to have overheard the slaughter, but he did not break and Mooney had to release him. It was nine before Mooney gave the men their details. Bill and Charlie had patrolled six hours without relief.

“I’m tired,” said Charlie.

“My feet are singing.” 

“Tired. I don’t remember what that’s like. Tired.”

“It’s like being thirsty in your brain.”

“I moved past tired a long time ago.”

“It is like your feet belong to a stranger.”

Bill felt mainly a panicked restlessness. The knowledge of the lurking fanatic had whittled his senses to a fine point. In the queasy silence of Baronne Street the creaking of Charlie’s bum knee and the ghostly scuffing of his foot and the muddy squelch of Bill’s own trench boots screamed in his ears.

So when the pistol fired it was like a thunderstroke.

Another police instinct: run toward gunshots. Bill never had the instinct and even used to puzzle at its existence, but since returning to New Orleans he thirsted for violence and its baptismal promise. Here was his first real chance at it. He followed George downtown, their legs pistoning, ribbons of green slime leaping onto their pants, toward the explosions.

Near the corner of Calliope they came upon two men hugging. The men were sprawled across the step of a shotgun cottage.The larger one—six feet, two hundred pounds—lay on top, his posterior extruding unnaturally. His cap had fallen off and the moon illuminated his bright yellow hair and the gold buttons of his navy jacket. The smaller man was nearly invisible beneath him. Bill realized at once that it was Harry Dodson, being smothered by Teddy Obitz.

“Offa me.” Dodson’s voice was a deflating balloon.

Charlie stopped midstride, an automaton that had lost its electrical charge. “That you, Harry?”

“Get ’em offa me!”

They pulled the large man’s shoulders but Big Blond wouldn’t budge. Harry wheezed terribly.

“Whatsa matter, Big Blond?” said Charlie. “You’re hurting Harry.” The poor bastard was always feebleminded, but when he scared, he became borderline moronic.

“Teddy’s shot, Charlie.”

“Big Blond is shot?”

They tried again, tugging on Obitz’s stiff giant shoulders. With a grotesque peeling sound, Obitz fell back, his head cracking against the porch column like an ax striking a tree, the sound reverberating in the empty street. Obitz’s blond hair was wet. His eyes were open, staring in disbelief. His chest was sticky with black mess. As was Harry’s.

“You shot too?” said Charlie.

Harry shook his head. He gulped the night deeply and crossed his hands over his ribs, as if to protect them from further insult. “It’s Teddy’s,” he said. “It’s his insides.”

“The man did this,” said Bill. “Where is he?”

Harry coughed, a wet, mucousy cough. He was breathing strangely. He wheezed something that sounded like “telephone.”

“Which telephone?” asked Charlie.

“Down Baronne. Toward the Battlefield.”

That’s all Charlie had to hear. He was off in a sprint—a bowlegged, herky-jerky sprint. That was instinct for you.

With his two comrades sitting on the porch, staring at him—one gasping like a fish, the other dead—Bill knew he should say something, something reassuring. He tried to remember what you were supposed to say but the violence was pulling him. “I promise,” he began. “I promise.”

“Get!” shouted Harry. 

Charlie was nearly a block ahead. Bill ran after him and almost immediately stumbled on a broken paving stone, twisting hard to the ground. When he rose, Charlie was gone. This stretch of Baronne had no cuts—the cottages were jammed tight against one another—but when he reached the corner, the intersection was empty. The only sign of life was a cur with a deformed front paw. It walked in a repeating loop, its head bent, its jaw working furiously. To the right, beyond the dog, was Lee Circle. To the left, Union Station Plaza and behind it the Battlefield. Bill stopped, listening. He heard only the cur’s low plaintive whimper. Toward the Battlefield, Harry had said. Bill’s instinct was to go right, toward the sick dog, away from the Battlefield, so he ran left. 

Five rows of palm trees ran the length of the grassy plaza in front of Union Station. Electric globes stood on tall black stanchions around its perimeter. The palms cast shadows like long fingers across the lawn. It was an obvious place to hide, within the alleys of the tree-lined plaza, among the broad palm fronds that were like gigantic splayed hands protecting a secret.

Bill waded between the palms, the stiff leaves raking over his cap. A sharp pain shot through his wrist—he was squeezing his pistol too tightly. He transferred the weapon to his left hand and flexed until feeling returned. In his mind he saw Teddy Obitz, sprawled on the cottage porch, staring into infinity. Detective Obitz: the city’s shrewdest investigator, a mentor to Bill before the war, kind, loyal, shrewd, strong. If the violence could claim a man as strong as Obitz, it could claim anyone, and there was no resisting its dark lullaby. It helped to remind himself of that.

He burst into the first alley, pistol ready, and swiveled—left, right. Nothing but a smooth rectangular lawn followed by another row of palm trees. He listened for rustling, but the grass muted everything and the silence was a Klaxon in his ears.

He dashed across the lane and into the next line of palms. The gigantic hands parted to admit him. There: across the next alley, a movement. He froze. One of the shadows bent like a beckoning finger. Someone stood not fifteen feet away, screened by a pair of low-hanging fronds. The light from the electric globes barely reached the center of the plaza and Bill squinted into the darkness. It had become very cold. The sky was ashy, the palms blackish green, the grass blue. The fronds across the alley waved again, as if taken by a breeze, but there was no breeze.

“New Orleans Police!” Bill felt cowardly even as he yelled, for he was still hidden behind his own scrum of leaves. But only part of him was here, in the plaza in the middle of New Orleans. The other part of him was in a dark linden forest near the Alsatian border, the branches scratching his face, the burrs sticking in his socks, the blood gavotting in his brain.

The leaves trembled.

“You can’t see me,” said Bill. “But I see you. I am aiming a pistol.” The frond hands flapped loudly together, applauding. The night was momentarily still. There came another burst of activity and out rushed a black hog.

It was a big bastard, easily three hundred pounds, its tusks flaring in the moonlight. The flank was banded by harsh silver bristles, the flat forehead was like the back of a shovel, and from the wide, clownish mouth, the jaws extended nearly to its ears. But the hog had no interest in Detective William J. Bastrop. It grunted, a sound like an air horn, as if to underline the point. It hurtled down the aisle toward Baronne. Bill watched it hop over the curb, its rump falling and rising as it trotted away. He placed his hand on his chest and pulled it away, as from a blazing panhandle, when he felt the hammer of his heart. He decided he would like to sit in the soft grass below the palm tree, to lean against the trunk and sleep until it was tomorrow. He wanted to sleep there very much.

“Bill!”

The voice was distant but clear. It came from downtown. One navy instinct he did have: when his partner called out, he ran to him. Bill sprinted down the alley to the back of the plaza. He broke right, down Rampart.

“Bill!” Charlie’s voice was still faint—at least a block away.

He came to the terminus of the New Orleans Canal. He was fully exposed here, but could see nothing. He continued down Rampart, past the Texas Gas Station on Julia Street, and came to a work yard that occupied a full square block. The sign said Louisiana demolishing company, hector schmitz, prop. The gate was open. Beyond it stood a huge pile of amputated cypress trees, each trunk easily seventy feet long.

Behind this great wall of lumber came an agonized shriek.

“He’s loose!” screamed Charlie. 

Bill prepared himself. He squatted slightly to lower his center of gravity, raised his weapon, and prayed wildly in his mind.

In a frenzied flurry a form whirled into view from behind the wall of trees, mewling incoherently, and for a moment Bill wondered whether it wasn’t again the snorting hog attacking him, eyes wide and crazed. The silence became very loud in his ears, the Klaxon revving up until Bill suspected he had gone deaf.

Bill noticed that the right part of the highwayman’s face had fallen off. The man stumbled and raised one arm. His hand rotated as if he were unscrewing an invisible lightbulb. The revving grew even louder, climaxing in a series of detonations.

Everything went still.

Charlie’s disembodied voice came from behind the lumber. “You get ’em?”

Bill tried to form words.

Charlie crept into view. “He must’ve got nervous when he heard you,” he said, approaching tentatively. “He was sleeping when I found him.”

“He was asleep?”

“He’s sure sleeping now.”

There were footsteps behind Bill.

“New Orleans Police Department!” someone shouted. “Yay! NOPD!”

“It’s us, Harry.” Charlie raised his hands. “Bastrop and Breaux.”

Charlie gestured at Bill to lower his pistol.

He saw that he was still pointing it at the body on the ground.

Bill turned to find Harry Dodson’s silhouette edging through the gate, followed by Harry himself. Harry looked minuscule in the wide factory entrance. He had shed his bloody jacket but still wore his cap. That’s funny, Bill thought. A tiny navy in his undershirt with a cap but no uniform. That’s a funny sight.

Harry approached, relaxed by the sound of Charlie’s voice. But he lurched violently when he saw the corpse. He bent over it, tentative. He knelt. He peered into what remained of its face. He seemed baffled.

“That’s him, right?” said Bill.

Harry Dodson, his mouth contorted in a jagged rictus, turned to look up at Bill.

“Harry? That’s him, isn’t it? The guy shot Big Blond?”

It wasn’t confusion on Harry’s face, Bill realized. It was horror.

“That’s him, Harry—isn’t it?”

“Billy,” said Charlie.

Bill ignored him. He wished Harry would speak.

“Harry?” said Bill, louder. “Isn’t that him? The highwayman?”

His own voice sounded strange in his ears, as if it were coming from another person. Was it coming from another person? From the body on the ground? The more he thought about it, the more certain he became. Yes, the body spoke to him. While Charlie gaped idiotically and Harry, solemn now, stared at Bill, the dead man screamed out of the half of his mouth that remained. He pleaded through his bloodied broken teeth, screaming, “That’s him—isn’t it, Harry? That’s the highwayman who shot Big Blond. Isn’t that right, Harry? Harry?”

  • “An elegantly structured, brilliantly told novel, by turns terrifying, touching, and wildly funny, and always generous and magical . . . Kudos to Nathaniel Rich, who has created a brave book, a novel brimming with brio.”

    Stephen King
  • “When Rich writes of his characters, their affections, their impulses and failings, he writes generously and movingly . . . Surprising friendships, small intimacies of fidelity and kindness, large gestures of joy: The Mayor's Tongue does all these so well.”

    Sophie Gee, The New York Times Book Review
  • “A knockout of a book by a young writer to keep your eye on.”

    Alan Cheuse, NPR
  • “Rich enchants with vivid characters and attention to their idiosyncrasies . . . exciting and terrifying.”

    Manoli Kouremetis, Time Out
  • “Rich is a talent with a full head of steam, and he possesses that quality I admire most in any novelist—a mind for details that is equal parts percipient and original . . . His authorial vision is both a delight and a terror to behold.”

    Maxwell George, Oxford American
  • “[Rich’s] descriptions of the vagaries of both nature and human nature are stark, fresh, and convincing, full of surprise and recognition as both good comedy and good terror must be.”

    Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books
  • “[Rich’s] prose is that of, in Saul Bellow’s words, ‘a first-class noticer’ . . . Any sentence from Rich is worth reading, any thought worth pondering.”

    Teddy Wayne, The New York Times Book Review