Thelonius Rising

Sep 29, 2014


“Thelonious Rising”
Author: Judith Richards
Publisher: River’s Edge Media
Pages: 317
Price: $19.00 (Paper)

Judith Richards of Fairhope, Alabama, is a veteran novelist with a considerable track record. Since her first novel, “The Sounds of Silence,” in 1977 she has published five more, to considerable acclaim.

“Summer Lightning” (1978) and “Too Blue to Fly” (1997) both won the Alabama Library Association Author Award. “Too Blue” was short-listed for the Lillian Smith Award. These novels, along with “After the Storm” (1987) are set in the Florida Everglades and based loosely on the childhood adventures of her late husband, the novelist Terry Cline.

Her thriller, “Triple Indemnity,” something of a departure from her previous subjects, was published in 1982.

In her latest she has returned to a familiar protagonist: the boy experiencing risky adventures, but in a new locale, and the storm in this novel, Hurricane Katrina, is a monster.

Large catastrophic events such as 9/11 inspire writing, often memoirs of the “I lived through it” variety—and novels. Hurricane Katrina fits into this pattern perfectly.

“Thelonious Rising” is so far the best fiction I have read of New Orleans and Katrina.

Thelonious Monk DeCay is a nine-year-old black boy living with his grandmother in the Lower Ninth Ward. Monk, named after the jazz piano great, has lost his mother, a talented singer, to drugs and, although Thelonious doesn’t know it, his white father, Dean “Tooth” DeCay, is serving time in Angola for the murder of the drug dealer he blames for his wife’s death.

An innocent, charming and resourceful boy, Monk, along with his buddy Percy, dances for tourists in Jackson Square with bottle caps superglued to his shoes and does pretty well at it.

To get to their spot in the French Quarter they have to navigate through dangerous territory ruled by gang boys where, if caught, they would be forced to pay passage and perhaps beaten.

There is no use looking to the police for help; the New Orleans Police Department will be giving no awards to “Thelonious Rising.” Unfeeling police take bribes, cover up crimes for their buddies, obtain confessions through force, loot dead men’s bodies. Monk’s Uncle Earl used to say “’The only crimes cops can solve are the ones they commit themselves.’”

Richards paints a convincing and frightening picture of the terror of the toxic rising water, drowning people in the attics they fled to. New Orleans was an iffy place, BEFORE Katrina. Afterwards, seemingly abandoned by the state and nation, there is anarchy: violence, looting, the dead bodies of animals and humans rotting in the street, a slippage back to barbarism.

Previously, Monk had a kind of guardian angel, the aging, gay Quinton Toussaint, aesthete, music producer, city historian, eccentric, and friend to Monk’s dad, but, after Katrina, Monk is on his own. He hides out in the Quarter with Jon Latour, a skinny, bearded, schizophrenic hermit who scampers across rooftops at night scavenging for food and collecting women’s red high-heeled shoes. I couldn’t get enough of Quinton or Latour. Richards has created some indelibly odd characters.

Monk is in desperate trouble but not forgotten. Searching for Monk, Dean DeCay’s sister Donna teams up with Barry Hampton, a “reporter” for colorful “Probe Magazine.” “Probe” publishes articles such as “Man Swallows His Own Glass Eye and Sees Cancer” and a story about a zookeeper who lit a cigar just as an elephant passed gas and “received third degree burns to his face and ears.” Donna is a newcomer to New Orleans, Barry an old timer. Monk is found, but in the last section of the novel, with the mud being scraped from the sidewalks of the Quarter, the two speculate on the future of New Orleans. Can the city recover? The hospitals, schools, whole neighborhoods are gone. The poor people are flooded out, many never to return, and “the poor people are what gave New Orleans the exotic food and unique music we love.”

Everyone is furious with the political neglect and incompetence at all levels, and in the novel Blackwater Security, of Iraq War fame, has been brought in as an occupying force, as if New Orleans were a foreign city.

Nevertheless, Barry and, finally, the reader feel New Orleans has extraordinary resilience. It can come back; it will; it must. There’s nowhere else like it in the world. It’s home.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”