“The City That Wouldn’t Die” by Garry Willis was published in the April 4, 2019 issue of The New York Review of Books and is a review of Jason Barry’s book City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300.
I read this review on the sofa in my living room on an evening when I was in my pajamas by 5:30 p.m., but I had not yet washed my face or brushed my teeth, so it could’ve been worse.
One reason I like this piece is that I like New Orleans. Well, I love New Orleans. New Orleans is one of my crush cities so I’m happy to read others who write about why it’s fantastic. I believe New Orleans is fantastic, too, and I will never understand why anyone would oppose me on this.
My husband grew up in New Orleans and his parents lived there until a couple of years ago, so I’ve spent several long weekends there over the past 21 or so years. One of my favorites things about the city is that no one will try to put you in a box. I hate being put into boxes and there seems to be few people in New Orleans trying to define you and distill you into a simpler version of yourself. I also love the celebratory vibe of the city. It’s easy for me to skip celebrating the good things. New Orleans has taught me to be a better celebrator.
Ok. Let me get to Garry Willis’s review. That’s why we’re here.
Willis opens with Katrina, because how do you not open with Katrina? He says Jason Berry left New Orleans because of the hurricane, but then returned. Willis writes, “Berry fled at first, but then came back. He already knew that New Orleans has a trick of not dying when it ought to. The city is a cheeky insult to the natural order, a mix of incongruous elements that somehow reinforce one another while trying to tear one another down.”
I love those three sentences. It sums of the spirit of resilience that New Orleans residents have cultivated and refined for generations. Willis then shares some of the history lessons he gleaned from Berry’s book, including the city’s “flamboyant beginning” and brief stories about the city’s traditions, artists, sins and saints. Willis closes with a story from Berry’s book that perfectly displays the city’s tendency to survive. The review of the book is fascinating, so I’m pretty confident the book is fascinating, too.
I don’t usually read books like Berry’s City of a Million Dreams. But Willis has shown me plenty of reasons to do so. I’m adding it to my to-read list.
And I’m going to figure out when I can make it back to New Orleans. It’s been too long. Any time away is too much time away. I need to eat the food and enjoy the culture and be among the people.