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Katrina: This Time it's Personal 

Caroline Goyette

For writer and Gambit Weekly contributor Ian McNulty, New Orleans recovery has become a matter of perspective. "I've learned to concentrate on relatively small issues and measure progress in the scale of block-by-block improvements rather than whole neighborhoods or anything like the whole region," he writes in the epilogue to his new book, A Season of Night: New Orleans Life After Katrina (University Press of Mississippi).

In contrast to the broad-strokes Katrina books that work to balance scores of individual accounts with social and political analysis, McNulty's approach is defiantly, if quietly, personal. It's this tight focus, combined with the author's fine eye for detail and his honest, introspective narration, that gives the book its considerable power.

Season of Night opens with McNulty in exile in Baton Rouge, sneaking into New Orleans to take stock of the remains of his house and his city. Weeks later, in October, he moves back into his partially gutted Mid-City home. As he attempts to reconstruct a life for himself, he brings readers in close to view the peculiarities of existence in a flood-wracked neighborhood that still has no electric power. In the absence of streetlamps and house lights, the night sky is thick with stars. In a neighborhood with no people and no traffic, the slightest noise travels miles and the ears ring. In a house with no electricity, dinner is always out of cans and life after work is shadowy and candlelit.

There's a contemplative, almost meditative quality to these details, and as we follow McNulty's efforts at routine — walking his dogs each night through his destroyed neighborhood, planting candles about the ruined ground floor of his house for a party, riding his bicycle back and forth to work past strange mounds of detritus on Canal Street — their effect becomes multifold. Like the city itself, the book occupies the quiet that followed the high-stakes human drama of the flood. In its aftermath, there is the sense of a new set of struggles stealthily creeping in, but also of the ways in which routine, and an embracing of small, good things, can stave off despair.

At the same time that it's about the recovery of a community, Season of Night is about being alone. Although McNulty chronicles the social gatherings and holidays that punctuate the months after the flood, he also writes about the need to withdraw, to reserve his strength to get through this trial. Imagination steps in to see him through his isolation; he makes up silly songs, wonders about the inhabitants of abandoned houses, dreams up the different times and places in which his surroundings would make any kind of sense. The simple and understated manner in which he writes about imagining a lover he would care for in the same way he desperately needs to be cared for is one of the book's most deeply moving moments. Our powers of self-reliance can be tremendous, yet we have a deep-seated need to connect with others, to share the load.

By the end of Season of Night, McNulty has taken us through the first Halloween, the first Christmas and the first Mardi Gras in New Orleans after the levees failed. He has shown us the return of beloved restaurants, the successful recovery of his block. And he has underscored, through his own example and the stories of friends, the devotion so many New Orleanians feel toward their city, as well as the lengths they will go to to return and rebuild. In his epilogue, McNulty offers a candid assessment of the recovery to date, both what has been accomplished and how much remains to be done. The big picture, he acknowledges, remains "depressing and hard to comprehend." Yet the book refuses to allow the abstract statistics of the disaster to take over. This is above all a story of hope, about individuals of courage and imagination who are unafraid to take recovery into their own hands, and who rediscover themselves in the process.

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