I was at the library one day, picking up some research material for the book I’m working on, and this book caught my eye. There I am, walking down the aisle, and this book was at the end of one row, facing out, and I stopped, backed up, and looked at it. (Score one for the importance of cover art.)
The title intrigued me – there’s certainly enough suck in this world. I flipped it over and read the back, and discovered it was about post-Katrina New Orleans. I shrugged – why not, it’s the library, it’s free.
I got 9 pages in while my car was being inspected. There’s a dog named Aunt Clotilde Robichaux. Author Cheryl Wagner and her boyfriend Jake would occasionally talk with their neighbor across a fence “a ‘crazy white family’ had erected in the sixties.” The author’s mother’s official name is Lizzie, not Elizabeth, possibly due to a case of “classic New Orleans ineptitude.” She talks about her widowed mom moving in with her aunt: “I like to think of these two in the late seventies and early eighties dancing down their front steps for the Krewe of Shut-Ins parade with us kids cheering them on. Old woman in a worn housecoat shaking her rump, showing the young mother how you wriggle free of life’s palls.”
After my car was inspected, I met a friend for a movie. I showed the book to her, read a couple of bits, and told her she would probably like it…especially since she knows New Orleans far better than I do. She was going to download a sample on her kindle.
I kept reading, through their evacuation, through a chapter of email exchanges that had me in tears, from the hope that maybe their Mid-City neighborhood was fine, to the anger and rage over the reports of the evacuation and response, to the disappointment of finding out their neighborhood was very much under water, to the worry of wondering how long the wiring can be submerged before it goes bad.
“The next ten days hurt. All the LSU hurricane doomsday guy’s dire prognostications were coming true. Fire, floods, floods on fire. The giant ball of floating ants arrived. Our governor and mayor were on the television with eyes red from crying.” They started getting reports from friends, of people stuck on balconies or roofs or dangling from trees, people laying dead on the sidewalk. “No one had ever called me to say things like that, much less so many people.” And there they were, stuck in Florida, unable to help, not knowing what was left of their house or their belongings or their neighborhood. Wagner started doing what she could, trying to get people rescued from wherever they were stuck by reposting posts from message boards onto the Coast Guard Rescue website. “It seemed inconceivable that this could help, yet also inconceivable that people were posting desperate SOSs on the Web that trapped relatives had phoned to them in the first place.” After one more piece of bad news, this time from her mom, Wagner seems to lose it. “What the fuck. If anybody was doing his damn job, this wouldn’t be going on so long. People’s minds are breaking.”
Finally, Wagner and her boyfriend Jake couldn’t take it anymore. They were determined to get back into the city, to check on their house, to start the cleanup, to keep the thieves away, and to HELP. Since New Orleans was under Martial Law, they were afraid they would have to sneak in, hiking along River Road or impersonating medical personnel. Wagner was able to get press passes, they got Hep and Tetanus shots, and finally got back into the city. It looked like the set of a zombie movie – there was no one there. They dumped some dog food when they saw stray dogs, dropped some water off with stray people. When they finally got to their house, they found plants turned to goo, a swollen front door, a soup-filled van, swollen moldy furniture, and mud everywhere. They had rented a too-small storage unit, the only one available, and had planned to take anything they could salvage there. When they saw the house, they realized the unit would be too big.
The chapter the book was named after, “Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around,” really got me. Wagner talks about how the unflooded people started coming back, now that there was electricity and hot water. “Jake and I would overhear them at the drugstore bitterly complaining. They hated the curfew. They were upset about their manicurist being displaced, their favorite restaurant not reopening, and all the stores still being closed.”
“There was a trite mantra I found myself having to say out loud to myself – everyone’s loss is big to them – to keep from hating people…
“The weird thing was that this little bon mot of trite was actually true. People had lost their faith. Our city was in ruin….I was not interested in sifting and weighing suck on a bunch of tiny scales. Suck was too hard to quantify. There was plenty enough suck to go around. Sitting around measuring it wasn’t going to fix anything.
“Flooded people started to grumble that unflooded people were SPOILED. And some days I was one of them. But in my unbitter, unflooded heart I didn’t believe people should be happy they had just lost their jobs or all their life plans. If unflooded people were spoiled for being rattled that their city and security had been shredded around them, then I should be thrilled that ‘at least I had an upstairs.’ And I really was. But I also wasn’t.”
I had made it 100 pages in, and I was hooked. I laughed out loud more times than I know, cried quite a bit, and nodded my head at the inalienable truths. Most importantly, I was reminded of something I already knew: everyone has their own version of loss, their own version of suck. Everyone is dealing with something.