Josh Clark wants to be perfectly clear: he is not a journalist. When he is telling his Katrina story, and those of many others', in his intriguing but flawed new book, Heart Like Water, he is relating it as a New Orleanian and as someone deeply in love with the city. He admits his view is subjective, but so is the journalist's, and Clark believes that his version of life in the city immediately following Katrina is the truer one. This is the raw experience, not a sweeping panoramic view, and Clark offers this personal snapshot to his fellow citizens who rode out the storm elsewhere.
"It's so they know what it was like to live here in their city -- what was really going on," Clark says. "To actually live here, not as reporter, but as a civilian. Not as a reporter filing his dispatches on his Blackberry everyday, squirreled away in his air-conditioned hotel room out in the suburbs somewhere, but someone who is a citizen, a resident living here."
For Clark, a writer and publisher of Light of New Orleans Press, living in the city means the French Quarter, high ground and where the city was first settled. With Katrina approaching in the Gulf, Clark decides he'll stay with his girlfriend, Katherine. He is living in the Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartment building in the U.S., and at 40 feet above street level, he describes it as "a veritable goddamn fortress, the brick sumo of apartment buildings on the highest ground in the city." When this description appears in the book, it's the Saturday night before Katrina and a well-into-his-cups Clark is using it to invite the dozen or so late night bar stragglers at Mimi's in the Marigny to spend the hurricane with him.
By Sunday morning, a sober Clark is making preparations, which include praying, filling up his bathtub with drinking water and boarding up Katherine's Uptown apartment. Like the many that remained in the city and those already evacuated or on the road, Clark is thinking that the hurricane "would not really arrive. History, for me, never had." The second sentence sounds like a daredevil's lament of life passing him by and Clark concludes the thought with his present reflection of: "Yet I did not choose to stay. I could not choose." By staying, however, he has chosen, so the question becomes what price will he pay for his choice?
At first, not much. As Katrina hits, Clark and Katherine watch the storm through the windows of his French Quarter apartment, and afterwards, the two walk around, surveying the damage -- trees blown over, leaves covering all of Jackson Square and some windows blown out -- while others emerge as well with cocktails in hand. It seems like New Orleans has dodged the bullet as the couple visit Flanagan's Pub on St. Philip Street. To enter the bar, they go through a plywood-covered door spray painted with the words: "We will not die sober." An insouciant mood pervades the barroom with one bleary-eyed regular observing, "This whole thing's like one real bad hangover that needs real bad nursing, ya know?"
Considering the lack of available or reliable information, a reccurring theme throughout the book, Clark innocently believes the worst has passed. With the French Quarter more or less empty and without any real knowledge of the catastrophic levee breaches, Clark sees this post-Katrina world as an opportunity to experience a post-apocalyptic city without the burden of mass deaths, only few modern conveniences or neighbors. It's a view that Clark still defends today.
"[Katrina] rid us of all those things that bog us down in day-to-day life. I mean, can you imagine what it'd be like to suddenly have no bills, no rent, no insurance, no taxes? To eat and drink and live (emphasis Clark's) free?"
With this French Quarter revolution ideal running through his head, Clark and Katherine meet up with other survivors and they form a quasi-commune. This part of the book with its cast of characters -- Petrovoski, the Windex-sipping madman; Ty and Ashley, modern day hippies with survivalist skills; Derek, a scar-faced guitar-strumming cowboy; and many others -- and their life in the "Compound," a condominium complex the group lives in, gives off a Jack Kerouac On the Road kind of vibe. When Clark writes, "We ate with our hands, gave food to anyone who came by. Big Shot T-Nasty hooked his stereo up to a car battery and danced wild-eyed in the streets," it's not much of a stretch to picture Kerouac's Dean Moriarty standing close by.
On the other hand, Clark isn't on a road trip, although the book is a journey of self-discovery, and he does feel a responsibility to contribute. After hearing Nagin's famous "Excuse my French everybody in America ..." speech, Clark starts a cleanup crew that, armed with brooms and shovels, begin clearing some of the debris. As a writer, Clark knows he has to keep a record of these strange days, so one of his constant companions is an old Radio Shack tape recorder that he keeps tucked under his arm for observations and impromptu interviews with those he meets. Clark skillfully weaves these interviews into the book and they allow the reader to "hear" how others are doing, such as the Miami Herald reporter who explains to Clark how he sometimes "as a journalist felt the need to put down your camera, in my case my notepad, and just help somebody."
That particular reporter ends up spending a night at the compound, getting terrifically drunk and sleeping in his own vomit. It's this kind of behavior and Clark's writing about it in an online article, "Partying At the End of the World" that earns him some notoriety. Through a phone line, Clark manages to get some freelance writing assignments by agreeing to pen four articles about his experience for Salon.com. Many of the Web site's readers respond angrily to his postings.
Clark now says that Salon.com "slaughtered" his posts, heavily editing them to the point that he and his comrades sound like simple drunks without any redeeming qualities. He regrets the articles, but he does defend his group's actions -- they were taking care of each other and maybe America wasn't willing to hear this in the face of such a monstrous disaster.
"Every time I reported about how well we were doing: eating, drinking and keeping smiles on our faces, they (the American public) were seeing such 'accurate' reporting of the horrors on other news networks," Clark explains. "It (Clark's reporting) really pissed people off -- that's not what they wanted to hear about."
Clark will say though that he was "incredibly ignorant" when he wrote those pieces, and, as evidenced by the book, the shedding of that ignorance means the end of the party. As soon as he can get beyond the Quarter, he witnesses firsthand the destruction, including the break at the 17th Street Canal and Hurricane Rita re-flooding the Ninth Ward. Although it is only a month or so later, it is a different Clark that conducts interviews with the mostly forgotten residents of Plaquemines Parish.
This is the work of a developing writer -- you can tell, especially in the overwrought descriptions of his relationship with Katherine, that Clark is still finding his voice, and occasionally instead of a poetic narrative it reads more like forced poetry. Nevertheless, this is an important contribution to the expanding library of Katrina literature. Heart Like Water unabashedly provides a first person account of life in the anarchic post-Katrina world that not only encompasses the tragedy, but also breathes with a joie de vivre that allows the true New Orleanian to call only one place home.