“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.

3 Responses to “A Review Of Shake The Devil Off”
  1. liprap says:

    I read through the book because I’d read Queens Reigns Supreme as well as some other articles of Ethan’s and knew it’d be good, but it was also quite scary and harrowing for me, too, to read it. Very worth it to read, but I won’t be picking it up for a second go-through for a while. All of it in the context of the storm, the levee breaches, and the sheer horrors of what people experienced and, in some ways, are still experiencing, makes this a book to put on, say everyone in government’s desk, along with Robert Polidori’s honking big After The Flood, which is PTSD between covers all in itself.

  2. Editilla says:

    Thanks Varg.
    That was a most excellent review.
    I have avoided reading or watching Anything about the flood since riding over the bridge after the first week in it. I tried to get out and see some of the works coming out, initially, that first year, but frankly I had enough trouble making it through a check-out line at Walgreens or anywhere near any gathering of more than half a dozen people without getting very very very scared. And, of course I never went anywhere without at least 3 or 4 weapons on me at all times.
    I tried one book, JL Burke’s “Tin Roof Blowdown”, which (though painfully naive toward the role of law enforcement) did serve me with images that I could not handle. Fortunately the author turned out to be an open correspondent, but it proved that I wasn’t ready to try on other peoples’ imagination of what went down.
    It all went down, Varg. And, we all went to Hell. There simply is no Art in Hell. There is No Redemption in Hell. I believe here is Rescue from Hell, but now I still don’t see that as the same thing as Redemption. While I am no longer in That Hell, redemption is a thing I still don’t understand or recognize. Self-forgiveness remains, for me, an esoteric principle of civilized souls.

    I really appreciate your take on Shaking The Devil Off and that Trauma. It has been this last year that I have found myself looking to “Flood Works” due mainly to That Story, since I knew those two from working in the Quarters. I, like you, have spent countless hours night and day in that air of their ghost-atoms as you put it. I had delivered food to them in that very apartment. I had even delivered to the hotel and stood looking over the Quarters from where Zack jumped.
    That story seems to be my key hole back into that world.
    I particularly appreciate the way you parallel the killer’s disintegration with that of the entire city, post-flood.
    You and Liprap suffered a considerably rude brunt of my own anger and disintegration and for that I really apologize. Y’all are two of the nicest and most honest nola bloggers I have run across since that horrible time, who I probably offended the most, and who surely deserved it the least.
    There are Karma Cookies in the pantry for when you will need them the most. They never go stale, because I didn’t have anything to do with baking them.
    You did.

  3. Maitri says:

    Nice review, Varg. I have the book but can’t bring myself to reading it just yet.

    Having seen PTSD in friends, family and myself starting the year of my birth, I often wonder how much stressful situations push already anguished/unstable people over the edge or whether it makes absolutely normal people just snap. How much power does stress have over a person, you know? Of course each human is different, but it makes you think: Did it take a person over or did the person let it take him or her over? How much control do we have?

    Of course none of it warrants bloody murder, which means many have a lot of control and some not at all.

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