Washington Post // Shake the Devil Off by Ethan Brown

My review of this disturbing book ran in the Washington Post on Sunday 9/13/09. I’ve only been in Louisiana for a year and didn’t live through the horrors of Katrina, but the aftermath (physical & psychological) are still apparent. This is a valuable, albeit incomplete, true crime book.

Even though the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall has passed, much of New Orleans remains obliterated. Entire neighborhoods — homes and schools, corner stores, churches and barbershops — got washed away and have not been rebuilt. Outside the relatively higher ground of the French Quarter, and off the beaten path, it’s impossible to escape the lingering trauma of the flood.

Given the bleak conditions, it’s no surprise that the murder rate in New Orleans has skyrocketed. In one sense we will never get an accurate toll of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the criminal (in my opinion) governmental mismanagement that followed it. In “Shake the Devil Off,” journalist Ethan Brown takes a close look at two lives tragically lost in Katrina’s wake.

Zack Bowen was a personable and popular 28-year-old Iraq War veteran and a fixture of the city’s quasi-bohemian world. By all accounts, he was a charming, stand-up guy and a good friend well loved by his neighbors and former army buddies. He lived with his volatile girlfriend, Addie, whose “dark humor, wild creativity, and eagerness to fashion an existence away from some presumably more ordinary or otherwise undesirable past made her an ideal fit for the French Quarter bar and club scene.”

During Katrina, the two of them remained in New Orleans in defiance of Mayor Nagin’s forced-evacuation order and survived the storm, in part, by looting. In fact, they turned the almost-empty city into a private playground. “The immediate aftermath of the levee breaks — mass power outages, eerily abandoned streets, and a silence that descended over the entire city even during the daytime hours — had a cleansing effect on Zack and Addie,” Brown writes. “The disaster seemed to have washed away their pasts — his tour in Iraq, her sexual abuse — and created a world of their own in which they could fall in love.”

Fourteen months later, however, Bowen leapt to his death from the top of a hotel at the heart of the French Quarter, but not before he brutally strangled Hall; then, according to a suicide note, “after sexually defiling the body a few times,” he chopped her body to pieces over the span of a few days, cooked some of the pieces in the oven of her apartment and then spent a week partying with friends in the Quarter.

The intrepid Brown, a recent transplant to New Orleans, attempted to figure out why Bowen did it. Very much to his credit, Brown mostly avoids the usual pop psychology and pat causality. The 15 pages of “source notes” at the end of the book attest to his thoroughness as a reporter and researcher. We never learn exactly why this particular murder motivated him to move to New Orleans, but upon his arrival he began to interview Bowen’s friends, neighbors, co-workers, army buddies and even his estranged wife in an attempt to make sense of what happened. Bowen emerges as a complex and contradictory figure suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder exacerbated by governmental indifference. Brown devotes significantly fewer pages to Hall, acknowledging that “my wife had occasionally angrily accused me of being too sympathetic to Zack,” and many readers will feel the same way. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a book on what it’s not about, but I find it a pity that the young women so savagely murdered didn’t receive equal attention.

“Shake the Devil Off,” which stems from an article Brown wrote for Penthouse magazine, is a powerful indictment of our ineffective political establishment and seemingly unfeeling military bureaucracy. Brown cites a published report that shows more than 100 veterans had committed homicide after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan but “neither the Pentagon nor the Justice Department tracks murders specifically by Iraq and Afghanistan vets.” He also notes that “a National Institute of Mental Health official said that postwar suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan vets may exceed the number of combat deaths because of inadequate mental health care.” Like Dave Eggers’s recent “Zeitoun,” “Shake the Devil Off” is essential reading for those willing to face the awful truths about New Orleans — our nation’s most misunderstood city — and the trials its residents still face every day.