Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Review: "King Zeno" by Nathaniel Rich

King Zeno, the third novel from writer Nathaniel rich is a different kind of period piece than I am used to. It takes place during my favorite time period for novels and has the kind of three-tier structure that immediately grabs you and has you searching for minute clues and begging for answers. But what separates this from a book like Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, which I was reminded of constantly or John Sayles A Moment in the Sun (both novels dwarfing this one by clocking in at over 500 pages) is it’s darker heart. Within this landscape and the lives of the three people at the center of it all is an almost total lack of hope for a traditional happy ending. Through the lens of a period piece, where some events indirectly references catastrophes in the future, Rich highlights some of the darker impulses of the human condition, such as cowardice, unearned praise, a lack of future prospects, the limits we go to so we can protect the ones we love and ultimately by the end, the weird satisfaction one can take in total anonymity. The book takes place between May 1918 and March 1919, nearly 100 years ago as of this date. It starts out with a series of news clippings, the first one detailing the very first murder committed by the infamous unidentified serial killer who roamed the streets of New Orleans and attacking couples with an ax. But the city, and the book itself at first, seems uninterested in this crime, and instead the clippings focus on a series of highwaymen robberies that do not even net $2 (a fact put forth by the book’s most tragic character near the end). We soon find out who is partly responsible, when Isadore Zeno, a young black jass (not jazz quite yet) musician is confronted by a cop and ends up knocking him out. But before that occurs we meet Bill Bastrop, a WWI veteran with shameful secrets of his own, committing a horrible mistake in his pursuit of whom he thinks is the highwayman. And finally, there is Beatrice Vizzini, a mafia widow whose lucrative deal to build the Industrial Canal, a job that will legitimize her business interests, is being threatened by the sociopathic behavior of her mammoth son Giorgio, the book’s most monstrous character. These three stories blossom in such fascinating ways, like the secret Bill keeps, one that threatens to destroy his career and his marriage, the pitfalls Isadore must navigate from robbing people, to backbreaking work on the canal, to his wife Orly and their baby and finally legitimizing the new musical genre that he hopes will set him free and the crumbling of Beatrice’s world, characterized by a very convincing hallucination near the end that is scary and heartbreaking. By the end, the promise of a new world and what is to come in the next century seems pretty much gone, or if it, it has soured beyond repair, and the only hope these three characters have is to get out alive. This is a very engaging and exciting period piece, filled with equal parts heart and venom and one that you won’t soon shake off.

Rating: 5/5

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