Despair parties on: James Nolan’s “Higher Ground”

*James Nolan was best known as a poet, poetry translator, and critic before publishing an award-winning short story collection, Perpetual Care and Other Stories, in 2008. Higher Ground , winner of the William Faulkner-Wisdom Gold Medal in the Novel, adds another dimension to his literary achievement,

This dazzling debut novel set in post-Katrina New Orleans pays both serious and satiric homage to the variety of survivors who never left, came back, or simply showed up in the storm-ravaged city. The title suggests at once the need to rise above the vulnerable, flood-prone elevations and the need to rise above the degradation and corruption that followed the hurricane. People need to find out how to get on with getting on: they need higher spiritual and moral ground. As well, they need to create some redemptive joy out of the madness and mayhem. 

Nicole Naquin has moved back to New Orleans after decades away. She is escaping from a failed marriage and attempting to assist her aging mother, the cantankerous Miss Gertie, who has been reduced to drug-dealing. Employed (actually underemployed) by FEMA, Nicole is already in a despondent state when two calamities befall her on the same day. Her brother, Marky, is killed in a drive-by shooting, and Nicole plows into someone’s FEMA trailer.

That someone turns out to be Kelly Canyon, until recently a reasonably successful middle-class homeowner. Kelly is now headed for divorce and counted among the FEMA-dependent consequences of Katrina. Back in 1975, he was Nicole’s teenage heartthrob. Once fate slams them together, each glimpses the possibility of a new life – a true life – an alternative to the ones they had the ironic good fortune to escape. Though the storm’s aftermath has brought them both down, it seems also to have also finished the process of decline brought on by bad choices and false values. Having bottomed out, there is only one direction left for them to take. Perhaps together.

Killed in the same drive-by episode that felled Marky Naquin, Latrome Batiste is a high school student who seems to have been collateral damage. But was he?

James Nolan

Two very different investigators work the case. One is Lieutenant Vinnie Panarello, a homicide detective who is himself under investigation for shooting someone in the course of an arrest. The other is Gary Cherry, a San Francisco hippie import who has made a home in New Orleans dealing the softer drugs while setting Miss Gertie up in business with illegal “script stuff like Valium, Vicodin, and Xanax.” The two investigators are in each other’s way, but, in spite of different motives, end up working almost in tandem.

While the mystery plot holds interest and is managed skillfully, it is not the main center of attention. The real attraction of Higher Ground is Nolan’s representation, in high-powered episodes, of the sensory and spiritual New Orleans he so obviously loves. Drag queens, double-dealers, jobless and homeless strugglers, self-interested politicos, artists, religious seekers, cripples, and crazed psychologists do the dance of self-expression and survival. All this kaleidoscope of human interaction is anchored by a mayoral campaign and the Mardi Gras. All this stew of yearning is seasoned and smothered by the ruins of Katrina and the bureaucratic infection called FEMA.

Higher Ground abounds in dark humor and uproarious hi-jinks as every kind of indignity, sinfulness, and bereavement seeks and approaches a life-affirming antidote and a shaky salvation. In Nolan’s New Orleans, despair parties on.

*This review was first posted on, which is undergoing some technical stresses and strains. Thus, I am posting it here in its entirety (unedited). For the SLR version, click here:

An interview with Mr. Nolan is also available:

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