Of New Orleans, Loas, and Social Justice – A Review of The People’s Police by Norman Spinrad

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If there is any city in the United States that might truly be touched by magic, it is New Orleans. With its near-seamless blend of French, Cajun, and African influences, New Orleans is both unlike much of the rest of the United States, and also deeply enmeshed in it. That connection – present, and yet in some ways almost tenuous – makes New Orleans an appealing setting for writers interested in telling stories with supernatural elements. The most well-known of these writers is Anne Rice, whose novel Interview With the Vampire takes place in various time periods and locations, but mostly in New Orleans (where, incidentally, the film adaptation was also filmed). Nowadays anyone interested in Rice’s novels can take a “vampire tour” around New Orleans, many of which include shooting locations from the film.

Like many other readers, I became enchanted with New Orleans after reading Rice’s novels in high school, and then later on in university, when I picked up Poppy Z. Brite’s Liquor and Prime at the encouragement of one of my good friends. However, it has been a good long while since I read about the city as a setting for a novel, so when I came across The People’s Police by Norman Spinrad, I decided to pick it up and revisit what is, to me, the most interesting city in the United States.

The People’s Police is set in a near-future version of New Orleans, in which powerful hurricanes are normal and most everything beyond what has been dubbed “New Orleans Proper” is called the Alligator Swamp: a place described as “a cross between a Third World version of a country-mouse Venice and the long-gone true bayou country of zydeco-mourned forlorn Cajun lore.” Martin Luther Martin is from the Alligator Swamp, but has managed to claw his way out of the mud and muck to become a police officer. However, when he is forced to serve his own eviction notice, he realises that something has to change.

So he does whatever he can to draw attention to his cause (which is also the cause of hundreds of other people across the United States) the best way he knows how: by going on live television. And since the hottest show on TV at the moment is a show led by Mama Legba, a voodoo queen who claims that the loas speak through her. Martin doesn’t necessarily believe in that particular claim, but who is he to judge when appearing on her show will draw unparalleled support and attention to his cause?

But when Martin’s publicity stunt turns into something so much more than just a publicity stunt, Martin realises that he has set in motion a series of events that could change the Big Easy for the better – or for the worse.

The People’s Police is the first book of Spinrad’s that I’ve ever read – indeed, it’s the first book of his that I’ve even heard about. That unfamiliarity did not stop me from picking up this book. Of course, I did so with some trepidation: since I have never read anything of Spinrad’s, I was uncertain whether or not I would like his writing style.

Fortunately, I did not have to worry. The first chapter of the novel has all the quick, tripping patter of an impresario, with a beat and language that is usually heard, but not always read:

Some folks are still bitching that the Eternal Mardi Gras is a Disney version, what with the traditional Krewes’ parading limited to the traditional lead-up to Fat Tuesday while the big budget corporate floats from Hollywood, Bollywood, and Pornywood parade all year, all long, all over New Orleans, which is sort of true, given that it was Disney I brought in first.

But whining that the Mouse has gone and done to the French Quarter what it did to Times Square, and oozed out into the rest of New Orleans like the annual dose of mud during the Hurricane Season, and calling yours truly, Jean-Baptiste Lafitte, a swamp rat traitor to the true soul of the city is going a tad too far, seeing as how the Quarter had fallen far off its fabled glory days even before Katrina.

You expect me to apologize for saving the city from drowning to death?

Oh yes, I did!

I have a decided weakness for this kind of snappy language, with its own internal rhythm and rhyme, and so it did not take me long to get hooked on this novel. It was not the kind of language I was expecting, to be sure, but it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless.

However, if the reader is expecting the novel to be narrated entirely in that style, then he or she might be disappointed (or perhaps elated?) to learn that Spinrad does resort to a more traditional, third-person singular narrative in other chapters. The only character who narrates in the manner of the excerpt is LaFitte; the other chapters, narrated primarily by Martin Luther Martin and MaryLou Boudreau, are done in the third-person singular, but they are not without their own unique voices. Despite these distinctions, all the chapters are connected by an internal rhythm and rhyme, regardless of who is narrating, which makes this book very easy and pleasurable to read (at least, for those readers who like the style).

The language certainly helps in bringing everything else to life – especially New Orleans. Spinrad’s near-future version of the Big Easy (or the Big Sleazy, as LaFitte calls it) is a character unto itself, moulded by those that live within it, yes, but moulding its residents too, leaving its own stamp upon their psyches. To be sure, it’s not always a pretty picture – but then all cities, like people, must have a dark side if they are to truly live and breathe, as New Orleans does in this novel.

But if cities have dark sides, then so do characters, and the characters of The People’s Police are none of them angels. But then again, none of them are quite devils either; they are just people, trying to make a living the best way they know how. Sometimes, the things they do are not quite what some readers might consider strictly moral, or even legal, but if the reader is the sort who likes the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be bad, then he or she should not take up this book at all. All of the characters have morals that come in shades of grey; the only difference is that some of them come in a lighter shade than others. LaFitte says it best, in the first chapter:

Those who adapt survive, like the Cajuns from icy Quebec said when they found themselves in the steamin’ bayous of the Delta, like the Alligator Swamp nutria hunters turning a plague into protein. Those who don’t ain’t been heard from lately.

The core of this novel, however, is not its characters, or its plot, or even its language – it’s the themes. On first glance, The People’s Police might not appear to be a very political book, but the reader need not get very far into it to see just how very political it is. It addresses issues such as police brutality, poor economic management by the government, climate change, racism, misogyny – just to name a few. Readers with a good grasp of the United States’ socioeconomic and political problems from the last ten years or so will likely recognise many of the things Spinrad is referencing: from Bush’s mishandling of the Katrina aftermath, to the major downturn in the housing market in 2008, to the most recent incidents of police brutality against black people.

Indeed, even readers who are not American will likely find echoes of issues that are pertinent to their own country’s socioeconomic and political situation. For my part, it was the deep class divide that I found immediately recognisable, as well as the conditions of living in the Alligator Swamp. It says a lot about conditions in the Philippines that what popped into my head when Spinrad describes it as “a Third World version of a country-mouse Venice” are the shantytowns that spring up along rivers and creeks and under bridges here in Metro Manila, where living conditions are dangerous because of the pollution and the very real danger of flooding.

And yet, despite all of this weighty discussion, the novel reads in a rather lighthearted manner. It does not treat the issues it tackles with disdain – quite the opposite, in fact. By handling them with humour and wit, Spinrad’s novel shows that such issues are not insurmountable hurdles, but rather, can be overcome if everyone comes together for the right reasons – and maybe just a touch of good luck.

Overall, The People’s Police is an engaging, often-humorous read that tackles some very real issues in a lighthearted manner. There is something of the fairytale in Spinrad’s novel, true, but if that is so then this is a fairytale more people need to read, because though it handles some very dark and depressing things, it does so in a manner that shows there is light at the end of the tunnel – as long as everyone is willing to get their hands dirty.

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