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The great Louisiana hayride was definitively over at the beginning of the 1980s, when the oil boom ground to a halt, and state coffers ran dry. Once, a high school diploma was all that was needed to land a well-paying job in the oil field. Now, even a college degree is no longer a guarantee of a middle class existence. And for many, the sprawling petrochemical industries lining the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are the catalysts in this economic and social de-evolution. Baton Rougean M. F. Korn captures a lurid slice of the city during this particular time in his latest novel, a blend of weird science, familiar streets, and local color.
Skimming the Gumbo Nuclear opens at the end of the 1970's in a Highland Road bar frequented by LSU fraternity types. This is the best time of protagonist Ricky Harrison's young life: drinking beer, ditching classes, and flirting with nubile co-eds. But everything goes downhill after the night that Ricky takes one of these young women to the levy behind the Vet School for a moonlit parking session. There he is the first person in the world to spot a flesh-eating eel-like creature that evolved in the Mississippi River, which has become a toxic sludge due to runoff from the nearby chemical and nuclear power plants. Days turn into years, and Harrison graduates college into the tight labor market of the 1980s, and is forced to take a job as a day laborer in one of the oil refineries. Meanwhile, citizens of the state, including Harrison's own mother, contract fatal cancers at an alarming rate, and rumor has it that more of the eel-things have been spotted. To make matters worse, a camp of homeless people in Devil's Swamp have evolved intoflesh-eating zombies after coming into contact with the creatures. Korn's novel captures a variety of 1980's malaise particular to Baton Rouge. The oil refineries, chemical factories and nuclear power plants loom like gothic cathedrals, their toxins breeding Lovecraftian monsters representing a generation's own spiritual unrest. Even "the manicured lawns of Sherwood Forrest" are unable to provide solace when confronted with such a beast. Eventually, the toxic atmosphere spreads throughout the city. Citizens become infected with a mysterious virus that reduces them to mindless zombies, and the southern half of the state must be evacuated until a cure can be found for this plague. All who now remain in the state are a handful of scientists at LSU, working to find a cure, some petty criminals bent on looting Cortana Mall, and a few who, like Harrison himself, believe themselves so psychologically damned that they're already beyond redemption, and they have no better place to go anyway.
In spite of the plot, Skimming the Gumbo Nuclear is not particularly gory, and readers wishing to view the city through Korn's skewed lens but squeamish about the horror genre in general won't be particularly disturbed by his descriptions of zombies and strange beasties.