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The Levee: A Novel of Baton Rouge

The Levee: A Novel of Baton Rouge


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Shuman (Burial Ground ) works the familiar plot of an older man returning to his childhood community to resolve an old crime with limited success. True-crime author Colin Douglas is still haunted by his memories of a pale white form he and his teenage companions saw on a 1959 camping trip outside Baton Rouge, La. Douglas later learned that this ghostly apparition coincided with the brutal murder of Gloria Santana, the Spanish teacher at his high school. The father of one of Douglas's friends, the local doctor, who'd been having a fling with Santana, was arrested and released after the authorities concluded that one of two obvious suspects (with heavy-handed Dickensian names, Rufus Sikes and Darwin Drood) was responsible for the murder. Officially, the case was never solved. Douglas's return stirs up bad memories for those he left behind. The solution may shock some readers, but the surprise element comes at the expense of plausibility. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Years after the fact, a true-crime writer revisits the scene of a crime to discern the truth of what he'd witnessed. Colin Douglas is 15 when it happens. With three friends, he's gone camping a few miles south of the city, near a once-lush plantation, a Mississippi River levee and a very scary cemetery. Typically hormonal, they've been bragging about their fictional successes with actual young women. When an argument breaks out, one of the boys leaves. Once he's gone long enough to cause even 15-year-olds to become less self-involved, the others go looking for him. No luck. Instead, Colin encounters . . . a ghost? A restless spirit disgorged from an ancient grave? Or something just as horrible but of more recent vintage? It's so dark, and Colin's so frightened, that he can't see or think straight. The following day everyone is shocked to learn that Gloria Santana, the lively, lovely high-school Spanish teacher, has been stabbed to death. His brush with the frightful something leaves Colin more baffled and traumatized than he can possibly understand. Forty-five years later, he returns to Baton Rouge-to research a new writing project, he tells himself, but actually to expel a nightmare. Shuman (Past Dying, 2000, etc.) presents an absorbing, well-written story undermined by one of those too-little-too-late visits from a deus ex machina that will leave many a reader grumpy.

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Chicago Review Press, Incorporate
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

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A Novel of Baton Rouge

By Malcolm K. Shuman


Copyright © 2008 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-5007-7


When I was fifteen we used to drive down to the levee to camp. We would go on Saturdays, as soon as the weather got warm, and we would build a fire, set up a tent, and twist biscuit dough around sticks and cook beans. There was Stan Chandler, who was my best friend, and Toby Hobbs, who was nobody's best friend, but was the only one of us who, at fifteen, had a car, and sometimes there was Blaize St. Martin, who was skinny and asthmatic, and whose mother was afraid for his health, so that he often had to sneak away.

The place where we camped was five miles south of the city, across the levee from an abandoned plantation called Windsong. We would sit cross-legged on the grassy top of the levee at dusk and stare across the gravel river road at the hulk of the big house, with the slave cabins behind it in the distance and tell stories about Civil War battles and slave revolts and the ghosts who were reputed to still walk the fields at night. When it grew dark we would turn on our flashlights and make our way down the other side of the dike to the borrow pit. If it was spring or early summer, we would launch Stan's aluminum canoe to cross the fifty feet of murky water. If it was late in the summer or in the early fall, we would walk across the dry surface of the pit until we reached the high ground on the other side. Then, near the tent we'd pitched in a clearing hacked free of blackberry vines and grasses, we would build a fire.

It was a time before cell phones, and nearly all televisions were black and white. We would sit beside the leaping flames, even on the warmest nights, and look upstream at the lights of the city, as we breathed in the hot, rich smell of the river that stretched for a mile in front of us all the way to the thin line of willows on the other side. We would bring frozen biscuits to bake in the fire, and frozen pot pies and sometimes beans. I had a bolt action .22 Marlin rifle, which my poet-father had purchased for me because a rifle was what a man gave to his son. But other than the first time he had driven me to the levee with it, when I was ten, he'd never taken me to shoot it again. Toby brought his father's .32 Colt, spirited away from the desk drawer where it was kept. Toby's father was an assistant attorney general for the State of Louisiana and Toby bragged that his old man could fix any problems with the law.

Sometimes we shot snakes in the borrow pit and sometimes just tin cans at the base of the levee and once I shot at crows, flying high over the river and when I saw one drop out of formation, wounded, I felt ashamed.

But mostly we sat around the fire and told stories.

Since we were fifteen years old we talked about girls a lot because in that day we were all virgins, though Toby would have had us believe otherwise. He told us of the girls he'd had (no one believed him, because he was red-haired, overweight and exuded insincerity) and of the women we'd glimpsed coming and going from his home when his mother was away, and that we did believe. He told us about the big parties at the Heidelberg Hotel, downtown, when the legislature was in session, and about the high-class whores who attended, and we wondered how he knew so much.

We also talked about religion. Toby, who liked to shock, declared there was no God and cited Nietzsche. I said the world could not have come into existence by accident and, though I was coming to doubt the tenets of my Catholic upbringing, I could not deny the necessity for a prime mover. And Stanley, too small for sports and therefore devoted to his books, declared that the question was unanswerable but that faith was necessary for man's survival.

And, finally, we talked about Rufus Sikes.

On Sikes we were in total agreement. He was the meanest white trash son-of-a-bitch who'd ever lived and if there was a God, Sikes had been put on earth to test men's faith.

Of course, all white trash were mean, but Sikes was special. He was the overseer of Windsong, and he lived in a tumbledown shack a quarter mile downriver from the place where we camped, with his wife and more children than anyone could count, and rumor had it he hated Negroes worse than Willy Rainach and his pin-heads in the legislature who'd just butted heads with crazy Governor Earl Long.

It was well known that some years back Sikes had knifed a man in front of Bergeron's Store, a country grocery on the River Road that was our source of provisions. He'd gotten a year for assault with a deadly weapon. After that, people steered clear of Sikes, which was easy because of where he lived: he seldom went into the city during the day time and subsisted on a house garden, some chickens and, rumor had it, whatever he could get by burglary. The black children who lived in the line of shotgun houses along the River Road kept off his property, but sometimes, at night, they rode past his house on their bikes and threw firecrackers in his yard.

He usually replied with his shotgun and it was, everyone thought, a miracle that nobody was killed.

The killings were all of grownups. Women, to be accurate.

That's what we talked about that May night.

I said I thought it was bullshit, that no one could kill a bunch of people in this day and age and not be caught.

Toby said not everything made the newspapers and that his father, who used to be an assistant D.A., had once had a cabinet full of unsolved murder cases. They were the ones where either the victims were too poor to merit much investigation, or the accused was rich enough to hire a high-priced lawyer, or where the victim was black.

"If it's a white man killed a nigger, they don't do anything, and if it's one nigger killed another one, nobody cares, either, unless they catch the nigger did it. Then they fry him." Toby grinned, an evil jack-o-lantern whose leer flickered in the flames of the campfire.

"My old man saw 'em electrocute a nigger once," he went on. "Said it smelled just like pork frying. White man smells different, more like beef."

I got up feeling sick and went to stand on the riverbank.

"Toby, you're full of shit," Stan said, turning the stick with the biscuit dough. "You told us Chinese women have sideways pussies."

"They do."

"Like I said, you're full of shit. I checked in one of my dad's medical books."

Toby roused himself. "I don't have to stay here and listen to that, shithead. I could've spent tonight getting some instead of hauling your ass to the levee. For all I know, you wanted to come here because you're queer like Blaize and want to give me and Colin a blow job."

"Blaize isn't queer," Stan said. "And you're a fat, lying asshole."

"Maybe I will go get some ass, then," Toby said. "You wanna come, Colin? Wanna leave fairy boy here by himself while we go punch a pussy?"

"I came to camp," I said.

"Then you're both fairies," Toby snorted. "Have fun together." He gave the round mouth, mimicking what we imagined a homosexual must look like giving fellatio.

"You're leaving?" Stan asked.

"Goddamn right. I got a woman waiting for me. Don't worry—I'll come back tomorrow morning to get you little girls."

"Don't take the fucking canoe," Stan told him.

"I don't need your goddamn canoe. I can get across the borrow pit. Only cunts need a canoe."

We watched him go, crashing through the high grass like an elephant.

"You think he's really got a woman?" I asked.

"He's a lying sack of shit." Stan turned the biscuits again. "He'll be back by midnight. If his fat ass doesn't fall into the water."

Minutes later the car started and then we heard it slip into gear. A few seconds later the engine sounds died away. We were alone.

"We're better off without him," Stan said. "He's gonna get us in trouble anyway."

"Yeah." I leaned back and watched him peel the cooked biscuits off the stick, burning his fingers and sticking them in his mouth.

"You think Sikes really killed a bunch of women?" I asked.

"You think my old man and yours would let us come down here if he had?" Stan asked. "That's just some of Toby's bullshit."

We ate the biscuits and our beans and a cinnamon twist that Stan had brought and drank water from our canteens and watched the shadows of the big ships gliding down the river in the darkness, their running lights red and green like Christmas ornaments. We talked about what it must be like to be the captain of an oil tanker, and how tricky the river was, and Stan said that once, a long time ago, when his father was a medical student, he and some others had swum it, up near St. Francisville. Then we looked up at the stars and talked about life in outer space and whether there might be some advanced race, with a Klatu and a giant robot, looking down at us, like in The Day the Earth Stood Still. And when it was midnight Toby still hadn't come back.

"So he decided to sleep at his own house," Stan said. "If he doesn't come back by morning we'll go down to Bergeron's and call my mom to come get us."

"Maybe something happened to him," I said.

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Maybe Sikes got him."

"Shit. What would Sikes want with him?"

"Maybe his car got stuck or broke down."

"Good. We don't need him. You're the one said he had a car, let's invite him. I knew his fat ass wouldn't stay out here all night."

"I'm serious, Stan. Maybe we ought to go up on the levee and look, just to make sure."

He sighed and finally gave a little shrug. "All right."

You can't take anything back. But if I could, I would take back that moment.


It is a hotel for gamblers, built to capitalize on the nearest of the two riverboats moored alongside the levee. There is something called Downtown Development, which is a way of trying to reverse white flight by throwing money at the downtown area and hoping enough people from the suburbs will come for festivals and other events, and that enough conventioneers will come from out of town to lose their money. At least, that's what the car rental agent said at the airport counter. He was a burly man in his late thirties, named Annunzio, and he asked if I was coming to a convention or to gamble and I told him neither. I asked if the names Hobbs, Chandler or St. Martin meant anything to him and he said no. Then I tried the name Sikes and he didn't know it, either. Finally, I tried Drood and he hesitated and then said it sounded like the name of a street in the southern part of town, which made sense.

It didn't matter because I checked them all out before I came here and the only one in the book is St. Martin. B. St. Martin, to be exact, but that could be Benjamin or Belle or Blanche. And I was too cowardly to call before I left.

So now, in the middle of a warm Sunday afternoon in May, I stand in the fresh-scented hotel room and stare out the north-facing window at the state capitol, with the river to the left, and wonder what I'm going to say when I pick up the phone.

"Blaize, I remember some things from back then, the spring of 'fifty-nine. But I don't know if they're true. Maybe I invented them. More than anything, there's this black pit that keeps sucking me toward it, like a whirlpool in the river, and I know the truth is down there, but I may have to drown to find out what it is."

"Aren't you a true crime writer? It's all public record. Old newspapers and things."

"I'm also a coward. I can't make myself do the research. I thought maybe if I came back ..."

"I'm not this Blaize. You must want somebody else."

And the phone would click.

I know I won't get off that easily.

Blaize is old family. They never move away.

Everything out there is different, which I expected, because, after all, it's been over thirty years since I was here to bury my father, and over forty since I actually was a resident. I had to use a road map to get here from the airport, on the new through-way, even though every Saturday, as a boy, I went downtown to the Louisiana Theater to watch the double feature western.

I asked about the old Red Sticks, the minor league baseball team, and I was told they built the throughway right over the stadium from which Big Roger McKee once hit a home run all the way to Dalrymple Drive, on the edge of the lake.

The Heidelberg Hotel, once the lair of Huey Long and his cronies, has been renovated and its name changed, the last of several attempts to resuscitate it, I was told. Now it is a gleaming white, just down the street from the new performing arts center where an old auto hotel once stood. Maybe the downtown really will survive.

But I wonder as I stand here if maybe the whole image through this window has been painted on, to deceive the unwary. What can one say about gambling boats that don't cruise or a World War II destroyer permanently fixed to its dock, or a jet fighter rooted to its stand like an oversized model? Maybe if I go down I will see things the way they really are, in the city I remember from 1959, with two ferry boats that shuttle back and forth to Port Allen every half hour, with a load of cars and pedestrians. I remember the smell of those ferries, part grease from the huge diesel engines, and part popcorn and cotton candy from the concession on the top deck. I remember looking down at the stern wheel, endlessly churning brown river water into a white froth, and I remember the huge, tireless eccentric arm that drove the engine, never stopping until the boat docked.

In those days, the only bridge was five miles upriver, near the refineries, and it wasn't built until 1941. When I lived here, everyone took the ferry.

Of course, I know the scene isn't painted on. It is real and what is unreal is my memory. Perhaps none of it happened at all.

I turn around to stare at the phone.

Maybe, I think, I should just drive out there, not give him a chance to hang up. Maybe as I drive past I'll see him in the yard, and stop "by accident." Or maybe if it isn't him, I can pretend to be lost, ask directions, and assure myself that the St. Martin I'm looking for never lived at this address. People work in their yards on Sunday afternoons. It seems like a plan.

I drive out through the university, under the canopy of oaks that cover Nicholson Drive, and between the two great cathedrals, Tiger Stadium for football, and Alex Box, where baseball is played. Once my father took me to a football game but I knew it bored him. He said that the university had misplaced its priorities, and being a faculty member, he resented the fact that the football coach made more than the professors. But we went to baseball games often. Even though the team was mediocre, he seemed to forget his resentment against sports as we sat on the hard bleachers in the afternoon sun, rooting for the home team. I wondered later if it was because baseball was no threat to him, but later I realized it was because it took him back to a time in his own youth before he knew he would be a poet and not an athlete. In watching the team play he saw himself the way it might have been. Happy days, before he met the love of his life, who died.

Once I leave the university I get lost, it has all changed that much. The address I'm looking for is out on Highland Road, but it is in a subdivision that was a cotton field when I was growing up. Now it is a stylish middle-class community with twenty-five-year-old houses and well-kept lawns. I circle down streets that resemble mobius loops and end up in cul-de-sacs more than once before I find the street where the map says it should be.

The house is one story, ranch-style, and there's no one working in the garden. I'm not even sure anyone is home, because there is no light visible through the crack in the curtain drawn over the picture window. I sit at the curb, engine running, and try to decide what the house tells me. No toys on the close-clipped front lawn, but, then, we are all old enough to be grandparents by now. A single gray Honda Minivan rests in the shade of the carport. The other slot is empty.

I can always go up to the door and knock.

But I am a coward. What will I do if he opens it?

I leave the subdivision and start back for the hotel.

Once I reach the university I make a left, heading for the River Road. But when I get to it, I hesitate. A right will take me downtown, where I started. And a left will take me away from town. To Windsong.

I am not ready yet.

The hotel room is my haven. I can stay here as long as I want, a god looking down on the people in the streets below. Some are walking along the levee, on a bicycle path, and a gaggle of teenagers lingers at the fountain. A charter bus has pulled up near the naval museum and I watch to see who gets out.


Excerpted from Levee by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 2008 Malcolm K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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