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New Orleans (Mostly) in the 40s, 50s, 60s
on July 12, 2013
If you're looking for a memoir about Katrina, this is not the best place to look. Despite the connotation the "Gone Away" in the title carries with it, Katrina is only briefly addressed in the epilogue. The second half of the title more likely refers to Wolf, who leaves New Orleans (apparently for good) near the end of the book. What he does write about Katrina he writes well, although he is very right that "[t]he enormity of the destruction and the scale of the tragedy were too vast to be captured by even the most skilled photographer or journalist."
Most of the book takes place in the 40s (the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor when Wolf was 6), 50s, and 60s. Title notwithstanding, only about half the book takes place in New Orleans. We follow Wolf as he wrestles at Exeter (by my math he just missed John Irving there), wrote at Yale (becoming buddies with Calvin Trillan), made an abortive attempt at medical school, and after a sojourn back in New Orleans moves to New York to pursue a PhD in architectural history (he became enough of an authority to hobnob with the Menils in Houston).
I thoroughly enjoyed the above, though, and the New Orleans sections were as rich as the food. Wolf is old enough that people from New Orleans were still going to weekend houses in Pass Christian to escape the danger of yellow fever. Wolf's parents were distant and seemingly enjoyed partying more than parenting. Despite a family local commercial empire, his people were locked out of the city's power structure--Mardi Gras Krewes--because they were Jewish. Acme Oyster, Café du Monde, and Galatoire's (especially Galatoire's) are frequent haunts. He lived in New Orleans when it was more bohemian than tourist trap. He worked as a cotton broker at a time when a third of the nation's cotton production passed through New Orleans. He earned a masters at Tulane in his part time, rediscovering the influences of an obscure French architect on the city.
The heavy tilt toward Wolf's early life almost gives the sense that he ran out of words or time and finished in a slapdash rush. Wooing his wife is glossed over (they met, she moved to New York, and they got married...presumably things happened in between, but we'll never know) and their divorce offhandedly thrown in (continuing a cowardly trend in memoirs). I would like to know what he is doing today--presumably it's not in New Orleans, or he would have had more to say about the modern city and Katrina. Wolf does, however, write gracefully and with obvious affection for his erstwhile home.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy of My New Orleans, Gone Away through NetGalley.