by Ann B. Dobie
Editor’s Note: New Orleans resident Tom Piazza is the recipient of the 2015 Louisiana Writer Award, given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana’s literary and intellectual life as exemplified by a writer’s body of work. Piazza is the sixteenth recipient of the annual award given by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana. An award ceremony will take place at the 2015 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, Saturday, Oct. 31, in the Capitol House Chamber from 10–10:45 a.m. Later that day, Piazza will be interviewed by journalist Michael Tisserand in House Committee Room 3 from noon to 12:45 p.m.
Tom Piazza is a man of many parts with interests that at first glance may seem unrelated, even incongruous. He is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and television drama. He is also a keen observer of American life, examining it through the lens of popular culture: music, literature and current events. In that role he has become a vocal advocate for New Orleans, calling it “a small model of all the best of America” in his 2011 book Devil Sent the Rain. And he is an award winning commentator on music — jazz, country, blues. His ability to integrate such disparate pursuits into a meaningful whole speaks to readers, viewers and music lovers alike.
Even the characters and settings of Piazza’s fiction are diverse. Drawn from a wide variety of people and places, they reflect distinctly different cultural backgrounds. For example, his Blues and Trouble (1997), a collection of twelve stories set in cities and towns across America, moves from Brownsville, Texas, to New York City, to Memphis, Tennessee, and features widely differing characters that range from a coarse-speaking bar performer to a down-on-his-luck drifter to a pair of furniture delivery men given to outrageous behavior. They are drawn from all social and economic classes, races and backgrounds. These stories present a disturbing picture of a troubled America, one which is characterized by cultural uncertainties, personal loneliness and moral ambiguity. The characters are unrooted. They are searching for personal identity, for a sense of belonging.
Piazza’s novels pursue similar themes. My Cold War (2004) criticizes the superficiality of American culture through the character of John Delano, a history professor who lectures on the “surfaces” of the past. Brushing away deeper observations, he says, “… only the surfaces of history are real. The understructure is what is provisional and gets blown away with the wind.” Piazza’s newly published novel, A Free State (2015), is a radical departure in subject, going back to 1855 to tell the story of an escaped slave who hides in plain sight as a minstrel in a blackface show in Philadelphia while he is pursued by a brutal slave chaser. The time and characters may have changed, but again the question of identity arises: who is this man who is struggling to be free? And what is the difference between what you see and what is?
In contrast to the ambiguity and complexity of his narratives, Piazza creates images that are sharp and precise. He has an extraordinary eye for detail that creates the look and feel of the fictional settings with power and authenticity. Take, for example, this passage from My Cold War:
The living room was filled with furry and nubbed over-stuffed velvet and brocade furniture from the 1920s, lamps with fringed shades, but we spent most of our time in the finished basement, a low-ceilinged room lined with varnished pine wainscoting and furnished with rattan chairs. My grandmother would lay out pieces of Swiss cheese on waxed paper on the table under the fluorescent-ring ceiling lamp. Upstairs was a sunny, old-fashioned tiled kitchen and the living room, and then, up a long flight of carpeted stairs, the bedroom level, where my deaf aunt had painted a swan on the pink tiles over the toilet. Through a door narrow enough to belong to a broom closet, a steep set of wooden stairs led up to a finished attic, which had been my father’s room, where old books and photos were to be found everywhere in the four dormers. After dinner I would sneak away from the table to go up there and look over at the houses and trees and see the light in the clock tower at the top of Biener Pontiac winking against the sunset like the evening star.
Sometimes metaphor replaces literal description, especially when a character’s emotional or mental state is under examination. In “A Servant of Culture,” one of the stories in Blues and Trouble, Piazza writes: “He feels waves of anger speeding along his nerves, like urgent messages over phone lines. He imagines that anyone could see the anger, coming off his face like heat waves off of a car hood at the beach.” And in My Cold War the narrator says, “I tested the idea, the way you might test the ice on a pond with your foot, tentatively, to see how much weight it could take.” In the same novel the city’s air becomes a force of nature: “Outside the afternoon flowed heavy, hot, and golden through the Dallas streets; the late sunlight clanged off the sides of buildings and filled the air, viscous and radioactive, like some kind of atomic beer syrup through the open door, it leaked into the cavernous bar where we were sitting and spilled across the maroon-painted floor.”
Sometimes the language becomes lyrical, taking on the qualities of music. In “Losing Hand,” another of the stories in Blues and Trouble, the reader finds sentences such as:
I’m going to wait until the last moment to leave, until the sun comes up like a gangster over Mulholland Drive and the gypsy women have gone to sleep and I can see the writing on the wall. As I drive to the airport through the cool, shadowed streets, I will fade in her mind like a constellation in the morning sky. She’ll wait until the plane takes off and the gauzy clouds waft past the windows like static gathering as a radio station fades, and then she’ll emerge like a fugitive into the brilliant sunlight and run to the ocean to make a new start.
Music is often referenced by Piazza and by those who read him. It is always present in his fiction. Blues and Trouble, for example, is said to be arranged in imitation of a twelve-bar blues, and some critics have noted that the stories are held together by an overall structure that is musical, noting that the first eleven compose a blues suite, and the last story, “Charley Patton,” which consists of twelve paragraphs, serves as a coda to the piece as a whole. My Cold War, which is not directly about music at all, has many references to music, including a multi-page digression about a gathering of musicians at Narragansett Bay. In the television drama Treme music does not simply furnish background. It becomes a character.
The frequency of references to music is not surprising considering the fact that Piazza was interested and involved in it early on. At 16 he became the youngest writer to appear in DownBeat, and while an undergraduate at Williams College in Massachusetts he organized a jazz festival and did a weekly radio show called “Home for the Bewildered.” After college he moved to New York where he hoped to become a composer and jazz pianist. While working a variety of jobs there, he studied piano, wrote music for a West Side theater workshop, and played jazz piano in bars and nightclubs. As he described his attitudes at the time in the introduction to Devil Sent the Rain, “Jazz music was alive in every line—it depended for its rationale on being alive in every line, the sense of bets being entered, and antes increased, as the soloist’s thought was spun out.” At the same time he began publishing articles about music in the Village Voice, Newsday and DownBeat and worked as a messenger at The New Yorker. (He even sold a story about jazz to the magazine, but it was never published.)
In time his music articles and commentaries garnered increasing interest, eventually making him a three-time winner of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Writing. His album notes for the Oxford American CD set Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey won a Grammy award in 2004. Other pieces have been anthologized in publications such as Best Music Writing 2000, The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, and Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader. It should be noted that his writings about music are not just histories or promotional pieces. He seeks, as in Understanding Jazz, to help listeners reach a deeper appreciation of the indigenous art forms he loves. He helps people discover how to listen by noticing form, style, and instrumentation.
Piazza profiles individual musicians in Part One of Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, people like Bob Dylan, Jimmy Rogers and Charlie Patton, who attract his interest because he sees them as “American originals.” In the introduction he notes that the essays in the opening section of the book represent “a kind of optimism about the basic template of American possibility.” After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the government mismanagement that followed, however, optimism was harder to sustain. Part Two of Devil Sent the Rain is composed of pieces that deal with those events, along with commentaries on several other subjects of interest to him, such as Norman Mailer, whose writing, Piazza says, made him want to be a writer. Part Three he calls “a coda . . . a kind of post-post-Katrina stocktaking—and a very short column, written before the storm, about things that endure.” In fact, the book overall, according to Piazza, was a stocktaking, a matter of going over things that were important to him and to the country as a whole.
Katrina was not only a disaster for New Orleans, it became a turning point for Tom Piazza’s relationship with the public. As the extent of the tragedy unfolded, Piazza, appalled not only by his own losses, but by the city’s physical destruction, the government ineptitude, the uprooted lives, and human suffering, began to write. In the five weeks that followed, he produced Why New Orleans Matters (2005), a manifesto that made him an unofficial spokesperson for the city’s recovery. The book’s defense of the city’s life and culture, and its celebration of the community’s diversity mixed with Piazza’s anger and mourning, became a powerful appeal for rebuilding. It also made Piazza a household name and led to speaking engagements and interviews throughout the country.
At first glance Piazza would seem to have been an unlikely defender of New Orleans. He was a native of Long Island, educated in New England, and lived for a time in New York City. When he made it to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1987, however, he knew that he had found where he was meant to be. By then he was in his early thirties, writing for Gordon Lish’s avant garde literary magazine The Quarterly and some music publications. That involvement led to enrollment at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop where he earned an MFA in Fiction Writing. It was not until 1994, when he went to New Orleans to interview singer-songwriter Dr. John, upon publication of his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, that Piazza actually moved to the city.
The move was a significant one for more than professional reasons, for it was in his new city that Piazza met and fell in love with prominent New Orleans attorney Mary Howell. For almost two decades they have shared their mutual affection (bordering on passion) for the city, its people, and its music, but in summers they head for Malden, Missouri, where they enjoy a retreat that resembles a holiday from the last century. Although Tom reserves time and space to work in his writing cabin, with no television or radio, Tom, Mary and their visitors amuse themselves with badminton, croquet and ring-toss. They hold an annual competition for throwing walnuts into a walnut tree, and one year they held a writers’ night where everyone read from current works. There is a notebook always open for people to make comments and remarks that sometimes result in a collective poem. Music, of course, is always present, and whoever is there is encouraged to perform.
New Orleans, however, is never far from Piazza’s mind. After publishing Why New Orleans Matters, he returned to it by using fiction to depict the personal and collective disruption caused by Katrina and the broken levees. The title of the new novel, City of Refuge (2009), was taken from a gospel song sung by Willie Johnson, who made records in New Orleans in the 1920s. As Piazza explained to the Times-Picayune, “Everybody in the book in some kind of way, needs some kind of refuge, either as a result of the storm or before the storm. At some point the characters need to find their way out of and readjust their relationship to a place of—what’s the word?—not acceptance, not comfort, not necessarily safety even.”
City of Refuge pays homage to New Orleans’ unique culture, but like its non-fiction predecessor, it does not ignore or excuse the city’s negative aspects. It acknowledges the poverty, the corruption, the racism that exists, but at the same time it asserts that New Orleans is a city that deserves respect from all. As he comments in Why New Orleans Matters, “New Orleans is … a city of elegance, beauty, and refinement. [But] it is also a city of violence, poor education, and such extreme poverty you’d have to see it to believe it.” Nevertheless, the novel celebrates the city’s multiculturalism and the fact that “all social and ethnic and economic levels of society have somehow managed to fashion a distinct and beautiful culture out of the tension among their differences”
The televised drama Treme, for which Piazza was a principal writer, depicts that same vision of the city. Its rich characters and psychological subtlety capture the complex organism that is New Orleans.
City of Refuge is a structurally complicated narrative as it follows the lives of two families, one black, one white, during and after Hurricane Katrina. (Some lesser characters bear close resemblance to actual New Orleanians.) For the most part the two families are presented in separate chapters, since, as Piazza explained in a radio interview, they would not likely have been together in reality. However, they both appear in chapters five and six, in which the hurricane gives them a shared experience, and in the final chapter. Their stories are interwoven with nonfiction passages about the storm, the flooding, and the nation’s reaction to it.
Chapter 13 is notable for its scrambled presentation. The chaos of the flooded city with its homeless population is reflected in the jumbled arrangement of the scene, making what the narrator calls “a sequential narrative” impossible. Piazza writes:
Everything was on overload, and what would be the use of trying to construct a sequential story when, as one day went by, and then another, and another, time itself was perverted, turned into a garbage dump under the hot blue sky. The drawer had been pulled out of every dresser and the contents dumped on the floor; every narrative was twisted and mocked, torn out of any context and flung down next to the grandmother of someone else’s narrative; elderly people in open-backed hospital gowns, ripped out of their own story and set down with their IVs in wheelchairs in the middle of the street, hungry, deposited by someone who left to save themselves, not even wished good luck, madness dragging at the cuffs of your pants, dragging like devils in the pit, hissing at you, beckoning, the palsy in that old lady’s face, the old man with a plaid short-sleeve shirt and a green suitcase.
If the characters in City of Refuge are confronted with questions about who they are and how they are to live, the lives of those who appear in other stories and novels set across America are no less discordant. Their days are unsatisfying and incomplete, reflecting Piazza’s dark, disturbing vision of America. It is epitomized by the narrator’s description of Brownsville in the story of the same name from Blues and Trouble. He comments: “I picture Brownsville as a place under a merciless sun where one-eyed dogs stand in the middle of dusty, empty streets staring at you and hot breeze blows inside your shirt and there’s nowhere to go. It’s always noon, and there are no explanations required. I’m going to Brownsville exactly because I’ve got no reason to go there.” The attitude is echoed by the narrator of My Cold War as he addresses the state of American culture directly. He argues that “It was as if people couldn’t identify with an image of America that was anything less than all good. … They had been presented with a transcendent vision of the nation’s promise and destiny, but without the leavening sense of the undertow of the world’s inevitable barbarism.” The situation is not without hope, however. As Piazza commented in an interview on the PBS NewsHour: “I think if there is a promise to American culture, it might reside somewhere in the notion that what’s most important is where people go, where people are able to go, given where they started. So there is always this tension between … the place of origin and the path that one takes through all this different variety that we encounter in American culture.”
Such passages have caused critics, such as those writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, to say that Piazza’s genre is “the American novel of ideas.” Others have called him “the thinking reader’s novelist.” It is a judgment with which he would probably not disagree. In an interview with New Orleans radio host Susan Larson, he commented that “I’ve always felt that the difference between serious fiction and non-serious fiction is that non-serious fiction can lead you to believe that things don’t have a cost. If a bill is not presented for the choices a character makes, it’s not serious in my view.”
Such artistry, purpose, and reflection have not gone unnoticed. Piazza has been the recipient of a long list of awards, the latest of which comes from the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana, which will honor him with the Louisiana Writer Award, given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana’s literary and intellectual life. Other honors include the Faulkner Society Award for the Novel given to My Cold War, the James Michener Award for Blues and Trouble, and the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction for City of Refuge. The Young Leadership Council/Literacy Alliance reading initiative, One Book One Orleans, made City of Refuge its selection for the year it was published, and the New Orleans Gulf South Booksellers Association and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities honored Why New Orleans Matters as the Book of the Year in 2005.
Colleges and universities have honored him in their own way. Piazza has held the Eudora Welty Chair for Southern Studies at Millsaps College and has been the Visiting Writer in Residence at Loyola University, the Trias Visiting Writer at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, and a core faculty member at the Bennington Writing Seminars. He has delivered lectures and readings at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of North Carolina, the Chautauqua Institute, the National Arts Club and the Library of Congress.
Tom Piazza may be a man of many interests and passions, but it is clear that he is a serious writer, regardless of the genre or subject. His recognition of the significance of writing and its power to tie all things together in a way no other medium can, so evident in both his fiction and nonfiction, is confirmed by a statement that appears in Devil Sent the Rain. In the introduction he writes: “The written word is not simply a less efficient delivery system for information or opinion. In the private space shared by the writer and the reader, one individual soul encounters another and a spell is cast, created by both of them.”
Now that’s a serious writer.
Ann B. Dobie, Ph.D., received the inaugural Light Up for Literacy Award in partnership with the Louisiana Center for the Book, the State Library of Louisiana and the U.S. Library of Congress in 2015. A retired English professor, she taught at the University of Louisiana Lafayette for nearly 40 years.