In this story of love’s betrayal, New Orleans is still reeling after the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. That hasn’t stopped glamorous Nikki Delongpre from hooking up with Anthem Landry while privileged Marshall Ferriot looks on, positive that Nikki is the ultimate prize, “the girl that he most wants to bed.” Even the fact that she hangs around with that “pipsqueak” Ben Broyard fails to detract from the reality that Marshall’s own life is on the verge of total catastrophe.
Before Marshall adopted a fatalistic attitude toward his inevitable unraveling, he spent a terrifying night with Nikki in 2005 at a house called Elysium, deep in the heart of Tangipahoa Parish. From the dark, gurgling rectangle of the house’s swimming pool, Nikki runs in terror after she’s attacked by some kind of plankton resembling shredded human flesh. The incident affects Marshall deeply and sets the course for much of what transpires in his narrative: “It was as if she sensed the bloody fantasy coursing through him.”
What results is a lost few years that begins in puerile self-gratification and ends in destruction. Rice doesn't treat his emasculated characters with contempt; instead, he takes the courageous route, looking at his protagonists’ lives as a symptom of a wider affliction. In 2013, Elysium has become a wash of untamed swamp, and Marshall is lying in a coma at a Long Term Care Center in Atlanta: “a place for the rich to stash their brain-dead invalids.” Little is known about Marshall’s circumstances other than that some trust at a New Orleans bank is paying for his care. Nikki has gone missing, and Anthem ekes out a living as a riverboat pilot, following in the footsteps of his bothers, considered by the wider world to be a bunch of “drunken slobs” and backed by those who have bought all kinds of political power in Baton Rouge.
I thought Rice’s novel was beautifully written, but it frequently falls apart with its preposterous narrative elements that combine horror with the supernatural. Having failed to find Nikki—who was reported to have died in a car accident with her family—Anthem emerges from the emotional wreckage of her death, carrying with him the memories of their time together. Also carrying the torch for Nikki is Marshall, whose intention is to re-create the long-ago fantasy of what he wanted to do with her after she betrayed him.
Using his talents as a literary shape-shifter, Rice writes in with a more ambitious and accomplished tone than in The Moonlit Earth. The timbre is tighter, the book's scope wider; events span post-Katrina with scenes set in multiple locations in both Georgia and New Orleans. The stakes are higher and the characters are drawn from a wider social milieu. Possessing a strange combination of desire and opportunity, Anthem and Nikki share a pain while loyal Ben is their glue, becoming representative of their “rational mind.”
When Marissa (the only black columnist at the Kingfisher newspaper) forms a bond with Ben, they join forces to unravel the mystery behind the wealthy Ferriot family. Marissa harbors her own dark imaginings of what fate might have befallen the Delongpres. There’s a nauseating sense that Ben and Marissa are heading straight for a looming black void, a realm of hallucinatory nightmares that is ready to swallow them both.
Here Rice piles on the supernatural elements that add considerable bedlam to a tale already overloaded with multiple plot points and a number of blood-soaked occurrences.
Overreaching all probability and often confusing, Rice’s tale reaches a chaotic climax as Ben and Marissa are swallowed up by a series of weighty ethical and moral decisions and Anthem and Marshall realize that they will have little possibility of living an ordinary life. Throughout, Nikki’s journals link the events, a talisman of sorts, something permanent and authentic in a world of threatening uncertainties. When needed, the journals also show how Nikki is relegated to the sidelines of a mythic romance in which she fears she’ll never be able to live up to in her own singular life.