Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2006
220 pp. It is always a treat to become acquainted with a new mystery hero. Tubby Dubonnet is such a treat. Dubonnet is a New Orleans lawyer who is described as "nearly honest." He has a home in the Garden District, is divorced, of course, has three grown daughters, and, as this novel, the seventh in the Dubonnet series, opens, is returning from five months in Bolivia. It is probably better not to inquire too closely into what he was doing there.
Tubby, who is really only very slightly overweight, arrives back in New Orleans the day before Katrina hits. He decides not to evacuate, weathers the storm, and then is caught in the flood following the broken levees. Tubby reminds me of John LeCarre's George Smiley, in that he is not a physically imposing James Bond type. If Tubby gets into a fight, he is likely to get hurt. The Dubonnet books, with their Louisiana settings, have a certain amount in common with James Lee Burke novels, but Burke's Dave Robicheaux is much tougher, his novels much darker and more violent.
The violence in Tubby Meets Katrina comes partly from a natural monster, Hurricane Katrina, and partly from the semi-human monster of the piece, a wacko-demento-psycho named Bonner Rivette. This stone killer had a crack prostitute mother and a negligent father. He was partly raised by his uncle, a Nazi, but Rivette has too much hate in him to restrict it to "the money changers" and "the mud people." "He concluded that all humanity was the enemy."
Growing up in the woods, Rivette has come to identify with the "woodland powers." He is a force of nature and, after escaping from custody twice, the second time during Katrina, Rivette forms a twisted identification with the hurricane itself. "Meet Katrina, buddy," he whispers to one of his victims as he is killing him.
Unfortunately for Tubby Dubonnet, one of his old business cards is being passed around the jail cell from which Rivette escapes and, taking this as a sign, Rivette goes to Tubby's offices. Rivette is heartless, not even cruel, just cold. Tubby has to cope with Rivette, rescue his teenage daughter from Rivette, in short, rid the world of Rivette, and do it without the support of the organized, civilized world, for New Orleans is in a state of anarchy—no courts, no law, no order, just claw and fang.
This novel paints a grim picture of the Crescent City in those days, the chaos at the Convention Center and on the interstate overpass, the flooding of the jail, the looting, the mysterious absence of FEMA, the incompetence of state and local authorities. For a while, to earn some money and stay out of sight, Rivette works mucking out flooded houses with all the disease, mold, and filth.
One of the strengths of the six earlier Dubonnet novels was Dunbar's detailed, loving description of the city's pleasures, especially the mouthwatering pleasures of New Orleans food. There is no pleasure and no food in this book. Everyone is eating canned goods or, later, meals ready to eat. Dunbar is a fine describer of food, in the tradition of Hemingway and, more recently, Jim Harrison.
We can hope that when New Orleans gets back somewhere close to normal, upcoming Tubby Dubonnet novels will again be set in the Café Du Monde, Antoine's, and Commander's Palace, and the characters will again be eating beignets, trout almondine, and oysters Rockefeller.
In addition to the Dubonnet novels, Tony Dunbar has written several books on the South—about Mississippi, migrant workers, and Southern political radicals—and has won the Lillian Smith Award, given to a book which promotes racial understanding and harmony. Dunbar is himself a lawyer in New Orleans, "the city that got forgot," and in his acknowledgements, he thanks his many friends who helped him and took him and his family in for several weeks, during their "exodus from the storm."