King Zeno
by Nathaniel Rich

Overview -

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and a Paris Review Staff Pick

A January Pick by Salon , Town and Country, Southern Living, and LA Magazine

New Orleans, 1918. 

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    King Zeno (Paperback)
    Published: 2019-01-08
    Publisher: Picador USA

More About King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and a Paris Review Staff Pick

A January Pick by Salon, Town and Country, Southern Living, and LA Magazine

New Orleans, 1918. The birth of jazz, the Spanish flu, an ax murderer on the loose. The lives of a traumatized cop, a conflicted Mafia matriarch, and a brilliant trumpeter converge--and the Crescent City gets the rich, dark, sweeping novel it so deserves.

From one of the most inventive writers of his generation, King Zeno is a historical crime novel and a searching inquiry into man's dreams of immortality.

New Orleans, a century ago: a city determined to reshape its destiny and, with it, the nation's. Downtown, a new American music is born. In Storyville, prostitution is outlawed and the police retake the streets with maximum violence. In the Ninth Ward, laborers break ground on a gigantic canal that will split the city, a work of staggering human ingenuity intended to restore New Orleans's faded mercantile glory. The war is ending and a prosperous new age dawns. But everything is thrown into chaos by a series of murders committed by an ax-wielding maniac with a peculiar taste in music.

The ax murders scramble the fates of three people from different corners of town. Detective William Bastrop is an army veteran haunted by an act of wartime cowardice, recklessly bent on redemption. Isadore Zeno is a jazz cornetist with a dangerous side hustle. Beatrice Vizzini is the widow of a crime boss who yearns to take the family business straight. Each nurtures private dreams of worldly glory and eternal life, their ambitions carrying them into dark territories of obsession, paranoia, and madness.

In New Orleans, a city built on swamp, nothing stays buried long.

  • ISBN-13: 9780374181314
  • ISBN-10: 0374181314
  • Publisher: MCD/Farrar Straus and Giroux
  • Publish Date: January 2018
  • Page Count: 400
  • Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Fiction > Literary
Books > Fiction > Thrillers - Historical

BookPage Reviews

A New Orleans symphony

Has anyone written the Great Novel of New Orleans? If not, Nathaniel Rich’s sprawling, funny, tragic, generous new work, King Zeno, comes close. It reminded this reviewer of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, with its clever melding of real and fictional events, its snippets of newspaper articles and astonishingly memorable characters.

Like the U.S.A. novels, the action in King Zeno takes place around the time of World War I. An axe murderer is preying on Italian grocers and their families, and sometimes tosses what’s left of them into the dig site for the Industrial Canal. Sicilian-born Beatrice Vizzini is bankrolling the construction of the canal, which will connect the Mississippi with Lake Pontchartrain. (The canal is real; Beatrice is fictional.) The imperious Beatrice is ever worried about her son, Giorgio, a hulking brute who is probably not as stupid as he wants everyone to think he is.

Detective Bill Bastrop is on the Axman case. He is just back from the trenches and suffering from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. More than this, he shot an innocent man suspected of being a robber—though this wasn’t taken very seriously, as the man was African-American. On the other side of town, Isadore “King” Zeno is a young man who can play a fierce cornet but has a pregnant wife and mother-in-law to support. The money just isn’t rolling in—until it is, thanks to a prank that he almost regrets.

Eventually, Bill and Isadore, Beatrice and Giorgio find themselves tangled in the Axman’s mayhem. Rich not only knows these folks and their loved ones, but he also knows New Orleans. He loves the honky-tonks, cathouses and bayous, the names of its streets and even the fetid mud and miasmic summer heat. He is cognizant of the city’s racial hierarchies, which may not be as brutal as those in neighboring Mississippi but still have the power to crush young black men. Readers will genuinely worry for Isadore and his friends, ever threatened by this sledgehammer of racism. Because of this, the ending is a nail-biter—with a twist.

King Zeno is the New Orleans novel we’ve been waiting for.


This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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