“I apologize for this groggy review. I drank some moonshine and ate fresh pork last night. The editor said it was good to go though.” – V
I finished Ethan Brown’s “Shake The Devil” Off” last week like I finish most books – 100 pages straight through to the end. I get so anxious about what is going to happen and so, well, in the habit of reading by that point I always just stay up and finish it in a flurry or set aside an entire Sunday afternoon for a relaxing finish. Unfortunately for me, In Brown’s book, those are the most gut-wrenching and haunting parts of the story, the parts where Brown recounts the lives of New Orleans’ residents and the close friends and family of Zack Bowen and Addie Hall after the flood and gruesome murder / suicide.
Ultimately but not entirely, what I gathered at least, the book was about trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder specifically. In the first part, Brown puts together the pieces of Zack Bowen’s trauma. It’s easy for the reader to distance his or herself from him in the way that we all attempt to distance ourselves from horrible stories in the media, even the local media. We say, “That’s not my neighborhood” or “What were they doing out at that time of night?” or other sorts of defense mechanism based philosophies. Folks say them as a futile means of eliminating the possibilities that such horror could be visited upon them. So with the Bowen / Hall situation one could make a comment about “crazy kids in the Quarter” and then read the book or the numerous articles about them in a removed state.
But Brown doesn’t let the reader (at least the local ones) get away with that. By the book’s end, Brown parallels Bowen’s mental breakdown with that of the entire city after the flood. In doing so, he draws right into the anguish of Zack Bowen.
As I read I began to think about the people who I know who, like Zack and Addie, stayed during the storm and how their lives were effected. There were two guys who stayed on our block. They looked over the houses and ran people out of our back yards and essentially watched over the place (we are several blocks away from where the supposed “Algiers Militia” went on their rampage). About a year after the storm one of them, a healthy, gregarious man, dropped dead at his gym. The other, his partner, has now retreated into the house and can only be heard screaming and chasing his pets.
Instead of an isolated act of horror, Bowen’s murder of Addie Hall was a sentinel of the downward spiral New Orleans’ faced after the levees broke and chaos ensued. It made a great story but it needed more examination that the “New Orleans man kills, dismembers, cooks girlfriend” headlines and the following stories gave us. To Brown, Dinnerral Shavers, Helen Hill, Robin Malta and the hundreds of others are all the same story, a story of trauma.
Brown also adeptly avoids any sensationalism in his treatment of Bowen and Hall. In many magazine articles today, we see a lot of Gay Talese-style decoration of events and situations that, honestly could not be correctly confirmed or denied. Brown essentially sticks to the facts. It’s appreciated. He pays respect to his reader by allowing them to think critically about his discoveries.
He also seems to have been closer to his subjects than a typical writer might have been. His decision to move to New Orleans after the storm and his worry in regard to his wife’s safety thereafter suggest that he endured at least a slight mental health crisis of his own as crime crept closer to his doorstep after moving here (I’ve been there). It doesn’t interfere with the story but is palpable.
To his credit, anyone with empathy would have a difficult time interviewing and developing any sort of relationship with Bowen’s friends and family after being so close to the case. Brown actually has perhaps more insight into the incident than any one person involved as a result of his having spoke in depth to many different people deeply involved.
I interviewed and became friends with Mike Sager, an Esquire writer a few years ago. He had all the real twisted assignments – John Holmes, Rick James, Gary Condit, Veronica Guerin, if there was a sensationalist crime involved, Sager got the gig. He told me that over the years, his involvement in the cases began to effect him. “I started to feel like a sin eater,” he said in reference to an act in Scottish history where a man would take up the sins of the dead through consumption of food and drink at the deceased person’s doorstep.
I know I’ve been walking around with the Ghosts of Addie and Zack on my back for a week even after just reading the book. Working and reveling in the exact streets where Zack and Addie’s drama unfolded, where their atoms likely remained. I too needed to shake the devil off.