Romance is Dead

Dear Abby,

My husband and I decide to go to New Orleans to see the city 18 months after the devastation of Hurricane Katerina to celebrate our fifth anniversary. A sensational murder happened during the trip - a man committed suicide after murdering, dismembering and then cooking (and freezing!) his girlfriend. My husband, a writer, was drawn to the story. So drawn to it that while still on this second honeymoon trip he began interviewing the murderer's friends so he could write an article about it for Penthouse. Would it be too forward of me to suggest we go to Niagara Falls next time?

Confused in NOLA

No, I am not kidding. Yes, the above describes how the author came to write Shake the Devil Off. I left out the part where the author declares the prostitution and drug selling rampant in one area of New Orleans as "a tonic" to the safety of New York. Because we don't have anything like that here in the Big Apple.

Logic flaws such as this are plentiful in this book, one I fully expected to enjoy. I love the true crime genre and I'm always happy to see quality true crime printed in hard cover. The topic is interesting enough: did Zach Bowen's army experiences in Kosovo and Iran so damage him that the additional pressure of post-Katrina New Orleans caused him to snap and murder his girlfriend? After reading this book the answer is a resounding "Who knows?"

Zach Bowen and his victim Addie Hall are at arms length throughout this book. Zach seems to have drifted through his life with a fragile sense of self - this is a guy who quit high school when he loses an election - and his marriage to an older "adult entertainer" (aka, a stripper) doesn't do much to stabilize him. Initially he thrives on regimented army life only to begin to buckle under the pressure. Unfortunately, we know all of this second hand. Zach didn't keep a diary so instead of learning what the army was like for him, we hear what it was like for someone in his unit. When Zach purposely fails an army physical, we don't hear from his doctors, superiors or anyone else, we hear from a lawyer who has handled cases "like" this and thinks is should have been handled differently. Addie Hall fares even worse. She comes across as a nutjob, all but "driving" Bowen to murder. Never once do we hear from her family or close friends from before New Orleans.

PTSD while a serious and real issue isn't a convincing answer for the why of this case. Bowen clearly had psychological issues prior to ever enlisting. Bowen's experience in Kosovo and Iraq is too hazy to create a convincing causal link. A more compelling question is WHY was Bowen ever allowed in the army? I have little tolerance for the "War Veteran as Ticking-Time Bomb of Violence" cliche. Hollywood treated us to this foolishness about Vietnam Vets in the 1980s. This is a dangerous stereotype and doesn't do a thing to help war veterans. PSTD should be better treated. The army should do a better job of psychological evaluations priors to enlistment and post discharge. Sadly, this has been the case since the Boer War and things have improved marginally compared to the advancement in weaponry.

Even the author seems to lose interest in the subject three quarters of the way through, straying off to tell us about the high crime rate in New Orleans post-Katrina. Since the crime rate in was high in NOLA before, this isn't too shocking. But Ethan Brown hammers it home by telling the random story of a couple who move back to New Orleans only for the husband to be killed and then, oh the HORROR, the woman's hairdresser. What does it all mean? What does it have to do with the Addie Hall murder? And most importantly why did Mr Brown make his wife move to a city that has ceased to be a tonic in its realness but is simply a place for her to get robbed at gunpoint? The unanswered questions pile up.

A true crime travelogue such as this is hard to do well and probably hasn't been done well since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The author is too present in the narrative making the whole exercise seem self-indulgent at times. I'm not all that interested in what the author has to do to track down sources or where he ate lunch. The author imparts this all in the most humor-free manner - and he has great material, like those rapping tranny prostitutes at the beginning - the subject is a downer but that's no reason to sap the life out of everything. In the end Ethan Brown is too enthralled with the "importance" of his story to ever put it in context or stop taking himself seriously for half a second, all of which makes for a dull read.

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