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    Ax murders and jazz in post-WWI New Orleans

    The excavation of New Orleans’s Industrial Canal in 1918-19 drives the plot of Nathaniel Rich’s atmospheric new novel, which draws together an aspiring jazz musician, a war-scarred police detective, and a steely Sicilian immigrant scheming to disentangle herself from the “shadow business” that won her construction company a lucrative public-works contract. These complicated protagonists and an expressively rendered cast of supporting characters move through a dark urban landscape menaced by an ax murderer and the Spanish flu. As befits a tale set in this most baroque of American cities, the action gets increasingly florid as it hurtles toward a violent finale.

    Rich, author of two previous novels, skillfully positions this 20th-century mayhem within the context of deep time. The African-American laborers knee-deep in reeking mud at the bottom of the canal pit are digging up stumps from an ancient forest, submerged over thousands of years by silt from the Mississippi River. “Buried below this forest was a second prehistoric forest,” explains one laborer who has taken a trip to the local library. “And below that forest, a third forest. So as they dug deeper, they were also digging back in time.”

    “It was like exhuming corpses that had lain in peace for eternities,” thinks Isadore Zeno. He wouldn’t be in the pit if he could make a living playing the cornet. Although he knows that even successful black musicians in the segregated South have day jobs, Isadore desperately wants to make New Orleans see that he is different. “He could do things with the cornet that nobody else knew to try . . . Once he had built up an audience and primed them to the right point, he’d bring it out, and their exuberance would be a hard panic.” Meanwhile, he’s uneasily aware of “the reverberation between the violation of the ancient buried forests and the violation of his nature that came about from working this job.”

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    As Isadore’s musings demonstrate, the author wants to call attention to the links between social and ecological issues, and Rich foreshadows their future interplay in the forebodings of a Tulane professor who warns that connecting the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain through the heart of the city is “inviting flooding and ruin.”

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    Fortunately for Beatrice Vizzini, head of Hercules Construction, the professor disappears before he can rouse public opinion against the canal she hopes will make her rich and respectable. Beatrice suspects that her oafish son Giorgio had something to do with the disappearance, and she’s also worried by the fact that all the victims of the murderous “Axman” terrorizing the city ran grocery stores that paid protection money to Hercules’s shadow wing. If the police make that connection, Beatrice is in trouble.

    One detective, Bill Bastrop, suspects this link but is having trouble convincing his boss of it, owing in part to the fact that Bill, a World War I veteran, is clearly suffering from PTSD, complete with hallucinations and crippling survivor guilt.

    Bill presses on with the investigation nonetheless, convinced that solving the case will bring back his wife, Maze, who, it turns out, left him because she felt he returned from the war “a plaster cast,” hollowed out by horror and unable to reclaim his true self. It’s a nice touch that Isadore’s wife, Orly, also urges her man to be true to himself; she sees that giving up jazz to support her and their soon-to-be born child destroys what she loved about him in the first place.

    A bravura scene at the Cosmopolitan Hotel shows Isadore flinging himself back into his music, slaying the crowd, and laying claim to the title “King Zeno” sardonically given to him by a more successful jazzman.

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    Rich expertly follows this exultant scene with a moment of dread when Bill collars Isadore, who thinks he’s being arrested — a reasonable assumption, given that we have previously seen several other black men shot, falsely accused, and railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit. Instead, the author sends Isadore and Bill to confront the Axman at the canal. In the aftermath of the bloody clash that ensues, Isadore stands at the brink of the canal thinking of “the buried primeval forests, where once there had stood colossal trees and wildflowers and spreading vines.’’

    This climax is typical of the novel as a whole, boasting an intriguing interplay between lurid action and a contemplative gaze across the millennia that gives “King Zeno” its distinctive tone, wholly appropriate to New Orleans’s unique character. But it’s also characteristic of a slightly schematic quality, a studied attention to theme and detail that isn’t wrong, exactly, but makes the novel feel excessively literary, less true to life than it aspires to be. Rich’s tale of post-World War I New Orleans has much to recommend it as a meditation on American life, but its ideas could stand to be more credibly embedded in its fictional narrative.

    KING ZENO

    By Nathaniel Rich

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 386 pp., $28

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    Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.