In the late 1910s, the Axman murders¹ captured the public imagination in New Orleans. The still-unsolved killings targeted the Italian immigrant community from 1918–1919, prompting rampant speculation, an unusual letter to The Times-Picayune purportedly from the killer, and a 1919 song by Joseph John Davilla called “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa).” Nathaniel Rich makes the serial killings and futile police investigation a key plotline in his novel King Zeno, and though an account of the Axman would likely appeal to modern readers—in fact, numerous authors have done just that²—Rich grounds his tale in a number of other significant events from the time period: the construction of the Industrial Canal that links Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River, cleaving the city in two; the Spanish flu epidemic that ravaged New Orleans in the fall of both 1918 and 1919; the burgeoning popularity of jass music, later recast as jazz.
Rich’s third-person subjective narration follows three main characters in alternating vignettes. We first meet detective William “Bill” Bastrop, a World War I veteran haunted by an act of cowardice on the battlefield. When a ghost from the tragedy appears to confront him, he is forced to admit his dishonesty to himself and to his wife Maisie. The ensuing marital strife drives Bastrop to believe that he can banish his cowardice and win over his estranged wife by solving the Axman case.
The second character is Isadore Zeno, the novel’s namesake, a dark-skinned Creole musician who performs as Slim Izzy. Dismayed by the lack of opportunities to play his otherworldly concoction of hot jazz and in desperate need of money to support his expectant wife and mother-in-law, Isadore tries his hand as an armed robber. When his partner-in-crime Frank Bailey is arrested, Isadore takes a job digging the Industrial Canal.
Nathaniel Rich makes the serial killings and futile police investigation a key plotline in his novel King Zeno, and though an account of the Axman would likely appeal to modern readers—in fact, numerous authors have done just that—Rich grounds his tale in a number of other significant events from the time period …
The Industrial Canal projects serves as a major concern for the novel’s third character, Beatrice Vizzini, president of the Hercules construction company, the sole contractor tasked with excavating the canal. Beatrice is also the matriarch and de facto leader of the Sicilian Mafia in New Orleans following the death of her husband Sal. She hopes to dissolve the “shadow business” and sees the canal project as the path to legitimacy, even as that business opportunity relied heavily on shadow dealings to get approval. She hopes that one day her son, the enormous and imposing Giorgio, will take over the business, but she believes he lacks the intellect or interest. As the novel progresses, she begins to understand that her dear Guigi does have a penchant for the family business, but little interest in Hercules’s dealings.
The police force begins unearthing bodies at the site of the Industrial Canal dig, and the Vizzini grip on the construction project begins to loosen as the partners grow suspicious. Meanwhile, Isadore attempts to capitalize on the Axman paranoia gripping the city by penning a letter signed by the murderer in which he demands city residents offer hot jazz as a kind of Passover. While it boosts Isadore’s audience, the letter also gives Bastrop his most promising lead. Having set these events in motion, Rich draws his three characters together for a final climactic scene.
Though the three protagonists come from different backgrounds and life experiences, they are linked by intense self-absorption. For Bastrop it emerges in his manic pursuit of the Axman, for Beatrice in her obsession with immortality, and for Isadore in his desire for musical fame. Bastrop rationalizes his quest as an attempt to saves his marriage, but he also acknowledges it as an attempt to vanquish his own cowardice. When Maisie contracts the Spanish flu, Bastrop tends to her in the hospital. There is tenderness here, and genuine concern for his ailing spouse, but he devotes all his spare time to solving the case. Internally, he oscillates between wanting what is best for her and wanting to save their marriage because it is what is best for him. After Maisie is discharged and returns home, Bastrop exhausts his leads with feverish intensity. Before Bastrop leaves home to confront the Axman in the novel’s conclusion, his wife tries to bring him under control:
“Don’t think you’re doing this for us,” said Maze.
“I don’t. It’s for me.” (364)
Here Bastrop, perhaps for the first time, is able to be honest with the one closest to him, even as his disclosure reveals his own self-centeredness. Rather than providing a breakthrough for the relationship, Maisie is distracted by his erratic behavior, suspecting he has contracted the same flu that has kept her bedridden for a week.
Beatrice seeks immortality in terms of legacy—namely Hercules’s work on the Industrial Canal—and by staving off aging through homeopathy, chiropractic, and medical treatments. On both fronts, she allows her grandiose visions to distort her reality, minimizing problems at the construction site while breeding unhealthy suspicions of her business associates. Her perception of her own family also suffers: she sees Sal’s death as a necessary consequence for his failure to properly protect the Vizzini legacy, while she denies Giorgio’s true nature until the bitter end.
In an age where we often digitally wall ourselves off from those around us in favor of carefully curated selfies and statuses, Rich’s admonitions seem appropriate.
When his drummer fails to appear for the Slim Izzy Quartet’s biggest gig to date, a broke Isadore offers to pay a more established musician more than what the group earns at the engagement to fill in for the missing member. Having overpromised his payment, he is forced to relinquish an Omega pocket watch he received from his wife, Orleania, which she had inherited from her late father. Only after the gig, as he vainly searches for his wife among the audience, does an acquaintance inform him that Orly could not stay because she was dealing with the early stages of pregnancy. To his credit, a stunned Isadore doubles down on his efforts to earn a living for his family, but Orly encourages him to continue his musical pursuits. The Slim Izzy quartet books a gig at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and Isadore sees it as his chance to finally become famous and create a musical legacy. In the novel’s closing pages, Isadore comes to realize his insularity as he reflects on the fact that other musicians will undoubtedly steal his musical techniques and expression: “The song was his only for a little while. Then it was everyone’s” (385). In an age where we often digitally wall ourselves off from those around us in favor of carefully curated selfies and statuses, Rich’s admonitions seem appropriate.
One of the most impressive feats of King Zeno is the way Rich weaves historical fact with his fiction. The novel opens with six newspaper clippings from the New Orleans Item, New Orleans States, and Times-Picayune from May 23–26, 1918.³ The clippings describe the first Axman murders as well as a series of armed robberies perpetrated by a “Negro highwayman” (5). These unedited newspaper reports ground the novel in lived history. In the book’s first narrative scene, Bastrop and his partner comb the streets in search of a suspect who has just murdered Detective Theodore Obitz. The fallen detective was the primary investigator of the Axman killings, but at the time of his death was sitting on a stoop as part of a patrol seeking out the robber mentioned in the newspaper clippings. Following a disorienting pursuit, Bastrop guns down a man emerging from the darkness with his hands raised, then frantically asks Obitz’s partner Harry Dodson, “Isn’t that him? The highwayman?” (17). Initially, Dodson identifies the slain man as the suspect, but when the robberies continue, Superintendent Frank Mooney is forced to publicly abandon the positive identification. Given the racial politics of 1918 in New Orleans, the police cover-up seems believable. But when Frank Bailey, the real highwayman who is also being tried for the detective’s murder, asks “who is going to pay for the death of Abraham Price and Louis Johnson, the two innocent Negroes who were shot down when they were hunting me?” (335), one cannot help but thinking of the names of Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Keith Lamont Scott, and Stephon Clark—black Americans recently killed by police without consequence. Remarkably, Obitz, Dodson, Mooney, and Bailey are all historical figures, and even Bailey’s quotation is sourced from a New Orleans States interview with the man.⁴ While we may feel that Bastrop’s actions were committed out of fear rather than racial bias, Rich’s novel exposes America’s longstanding structural racism through compelling storytelling, clarifying that the problems are systemic even as they involve individual actors.
We also see an encounter with law enforcement from the other side, as Isadore, on his way to crash at the shack adjacent Uptown mansion where Orly works as a nanny, meets a patrolman making his 4 am rounds. Our musician claims to be returning from a gig, but his story rouses suspicion since he is not carrying his horn. As the officer ominously escorts Isadore to his destination, Isadore knocks him out with the barrel of his concealed revolver, then retreats down the alley to Orly’s room. The officer’s profiling and terrorizing behavior under the guise of watching for the Negro highwayman understandably fill Isadore with rage, but as we learn that Isadore has in fact been Bailey’s accomplice during his robberies, we realize the situation is a bit more complicated. As we have already encountered with the detailed if narcissistic inner lives of our protagonists, Rich manages to capture the messiness of the human experience, having his characters live in the gray moral reality rather than the black-and-white dichotomies presented in the abstract.
Rich’s novel exposes America’s longstanding structural racism through compelling storytelling, clarifying that the problems are systemic even as they involve individual actors.
Though much of the novel is based on historical events, Rich imbues these events with powerful symbolism. For instance, the Industrial Canal project splits the city in two, and this division resonates with the division in today’s America. In the novel, the project is driven by corporate interests in Hercules Construction and Hibernia Bank, facilitated by technology in the form of the Texas, “a monster suction dredge that … had dug the Panama Canal four years earlier” (76). Most of the work is done by exploiting minority labor. Today, we might substitute media companies and social media giants as the driving corporate forces, facilitated by smartphones and internet connectivity, but we participants dig the division in sharing our partisan headlines and isolating ourselves in ideological echo chambers.
The canal is now a central piece of New Orleans, but Rich gives voice to the canal’s defeated opponents in the form of Professor Joshua Fishman of Tulane University. Hibernia and Hercules executives fret over Fishman’s unpublished letter to the editor, which pleads with the citizens to reconsider the prospect of the canal. “Have we already forgotten the great storm of 1915, the fallen steeples, the ripped-up roofs, the Lake invading through the gutters? Why, having spent two centuries defending ourselves from villainous Water, should we invite Her into the intimacy of our homes as if She were a weary traveler?” (67). In light of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward, due in no small part to levee failures along the Industrial Canal, Fishman’s warnings ring true.
If Katrina lurks in the backdrop of King Zeno, it is also because Rich’s prose brings New Orleans to life. He captures the way the heat weighs on your body, the smells that choke your nostrils, the way the air tastes. One could track the characters’ movements on a map, as Rich meticulously deploys street names and landmarks to give the city texture. He invites the reader to inhabit the city with all five senses. As a music scholar, I found Rich’s descriptions of Isadore’s playing fresh and inventive, neither too precious or fanciful.
If Katrina lurks in the backdrop of King Zeno, it is also because Rich’s prose brings New Orleans to life. He captures the way the heat weighs on your body, the smells that choke your nostrils, the way the air tastes. One could track the characters’ movements on a map, as Rich meticulously deploys street names and landmarks to give the city texture. He invites the reader to inhabit the city with all five senses.
King Zeno is not without flaws, however. Despite the fact that each vignette is dated and located in a particular neighborhood or building, Rich occasionally overlays the flashbacks and memories too heavily, obscuring the timeline. In particular, Beatrice’s plan to keep tabs on Giorgio, detailed in passages dated March 3 and March 5, 1919, actually takes place the previous September. Perhaps this is meant to reflect Beatrice’s delusional state of mind, but as a reader I found it unnecessarily confusing. Rich’s climax has also been rightly criticized. Dan Cryer, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, indicates that “Rich sabotages his tale with a melodramatic, violent climax that would make a B-movie director blush.”⁵ The New York Times Chris Bachelder is more sympathetic, attributing the ending’s failure to the form of the novel as a medium: “Novels expand, then contract. The contraction is compulsory, the application of narrative form on the messy and entropic world the novel is attempting to represent.”⁶ I agree that the ending leaves much to be desired, but in my eyes the fault comes from the conclusion being too abrupt. The few pages of falling action may dissolve the tensions from the final scene, but they do not offer enough resolution for the characters. Does Bastrop ultimately survive his final encounter with the Axman or the Spanish flu? Do he and Maisie salvage their marriage? What happens to the Vizzini legacy and Hercules construction? What of Isadore and his new daughter, Isadora? Does he manage any success as a musician? To be fair, because of his attention to historical detail, Rich unravels Isadore’s thread as far as he can while maintaining credibility—how else to explain King Zeno’s exclusion from the pantheon of New Orleans jazzmen like Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory? With scope so ambitious, any conclusion necessarily fails to resolve the breadth of topics and themes developed through the book.
A strong novel, like many other art forms, often reveals something from within the reader. Perhaps the insularity of the protagonists emerged as I wrestle with the time I spend gazing into screens instead of engaging with those around me. Perhaps the Industrial Canal’s division of New Orleans reflects my growing concern for the widening divide in American politics. Perhaps my disappointment with the novel’s ending comes from my desire to know “where do we go from here? what comes next?” The questions from the “Readers’ Guide” that Rich offers on his website, though, suggest that these concerns are not unique to me.⁷ Perhaps, then, King Zeno is an important novel for America now. Do we accept Frank Bailey’s pronouncement that “Fear is the only truth,” (267) or do we hope for a better way?