...ambitious and metaphorically dense... Rich, a resident of New Orleans, throws his arms wide open to history and to the city, and King Zeno, particularly in its first half, is as unruly and laterally active as a big urban novel ought to be. And the novel, like a city, somehow coheres, as Rich never loses control of the riotous raw material. The close third-person point of view rotates among three central figures, providing pattern and the promise of convergence; the mysterious ax murders serve as a narrative through-line; the canal exerts centripetal and allegorical force; and the extraordinary American yearning of the characters... Despite his large canvas, Rich is a gifted portraitist of his three main characters ... This is a novel with a high body count, but it has far too much energy ever to feel morbid ... The resolution is exciting and tense, and yet after all of the novel’s artful chaos, it feels like a diminution.
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 ... 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... 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.
New Orleans in 1918 is the messy and exciting setting of Nathaniel Rich’s King Zeno. In Mr. Rich’s Crescent City, Creole cornet player Isadore Zeno labors at backbreaking day jobs in order to support his pregnant wife, while also trying to serve his artistic muse ... Mr. Rich tells a complicated story with great skill and style, sketching the mental lives of a dozen major characters and bringing a vanished era to colorful and realistic life. Despite the social inequity, dreadful hygiene and lack of penicillin, it’s refreshing to spend time in a milieu where jazz (or 'jass') music can provide a path to moral triumph.
Like a meal at one of New Orleans’ famed eateries, Nathaniel Rich’s new novel, King Zeno, offers a groaning board of tasty literary treats ... Within its sprawling reach, King Zeno is essentially the tale of three New Orleanians of disparate backgrounds whose stories become violently entwined over the course of 1918 ...offers a gritty, panoramic portrait of the Big Easy, from its brothels and concert halls to the mansions of the Garden District ... Rich’s novel is a hybrid of literary fiction and police procedural, and for much of the book he manages to pull off this balancing act ...full of sharply rendered minor characters, gallows humor and finely observed descriptions ... Other readers may find themselves wanting a different configuration. Yet, the fact that Rich comes so close to executing this ambitious literary banquet is in itself a remarkable achievement.
'Is an ax-man at large in New Orleans?' So asks a 1918 Times-Picayune article in Nathaniel Rich’s sprawling but speedy third novel, King Zeno. Set against the backdrop of the birth of jazz and the Spanish flu, King Zeno tells the story of an army veteran, a jazz cornetist, and a Mafia widow, whose trajectories are twisted by a musically motivated ax murderer. It’s a rich, contemporary canonization of the Crescent City at the turn of the century.
Doctorow made the nation itself feel like a character, and Nathaniel Rich, in his third novel, King Zeno, aspires to do much the same for his hometown of New Orleans ... Plotwise, it's a crime story, but thematically, Rich uses this historical matter to explore the intersections of corruption, music, business and racism that were secret at the time but are now out in the open. It's not Ragtime, but it's respectably ambitious for wanting to be ... Rich imagines a culprit, though, one who fits his vision of the city as a place with enormous potential (jazz, a pluralistic culture) undone by old-fashioned racism, fear and corruption... Profound symbolism giveth, but it also taketh away ... It's the one form of fiction that's arguably most at risk of making a mess. But it can also speak powerfully to the present, and King Zeno often does.
Now it will grab readers in his third novel, King Zeno, which takes place during a pivotal year in the city’s history: 1918. It is a gritty portrait of a city clawing its way toward the future, wrestling with geography, history, destiny, the forces of nature and human greed and hope ... Meticulously timed and plotted, King Zeno ties these events together in the unforgettable characters... To read King Zeno is to see the city through Rich’s sharply observant yet loving eyes ... That vivid and visible history is amplified by human voices ... It takes time to learn a city, to love it, to make a mark on it, and Rich has done that in King Zeno.
This dark, panoramic thriller set in post-World War I New Orleans appears to have been inspired stylistically by the films that author Nathaniel Rich examined in his 2005 study, San Francisco Noir ... Though not in the same league as E.L. Doctorow’s similarly fictive-historical Ragtime — or, for that matter, Michael Ondaatje’s haunting Coming Through Slaughter (about fabled trumpeter Buddy Bolden) — King Zeno is a fun read and more ambitious than most genre novels ... His muscular prose hums at its best when it is plainly expository, particularly while inhabiting his characters’ minds ... Rich excels at character development, painting vivid, interior portraits of his cowardly white detective, Bill Bastrop, and the aspiring but conflicted African-American jazz musician of the book’s title, Isadore Zeno ... More troubling is that the writing in King Zeno sometimes runs purple and also spills into other implausibilities... But there’s still a lot to like here for fans of detective fiction, and of film noir and jazz.
In King Zeno, Nathaniel Rich's third novel, the fates of a musician, a cop and a Mafia widow collide with consequences that stretch far beyond their individual lives, threatening to shape the destiny of this undeniably corrupt, but never boring, port city ... Rich smears his lively prose with enough mud, blood, sweat and Oysters Vizzini grease that readers should keep a stack of napkins handy ... Rich pushes the story ahead at a ragtime pace, alternating passages of florid description - particularly when Izzy is in one of his musical reveries - and bare-knuckle action ... King Zeno, a novel of underground forests, towns within towns and recurring nightmares suddenly come to life, is a page-turning reminder that in this venerable city, some buried secrets aren't meant to stay that way.
...a crime novel that yearns to be a screenplay … The book never measures up to its potential. Most annoying is Rich’s penchant for making scenes far longer than they need to be. Because conversations drag on in a way they wouldn’t in real life, the impact of a meeting between characters is blurred … Finally, and unfortunately, Rich sabotages his tale with a melodramatic, violent climax that would make a B-movie director blush.
Rich uses music, race, and historical details in ways that will likely spark comparisons to E.L. Doctorow’s multifaceted Ragtime. It’s a nicely paced detective thriller, clever on corporate corruption and police procedure. As a kind of jazz number, it establishes the Axman theme and then plays solos on it through major and minor characters. The literary excursion features a big metaphor in the Industrial Canal, which divided New Orleans — as the main characters all must face rifts in their personal lives ... Marked by offbeat humor and up-tempo writing, this is a more conventional outing for Rich than his first two novels and could well expand his audience.
Set in New Orleans in the wake of World War I, Rich’s spirited third novel (after Odds Against Tomorrow) contrasts the luminous early years of jazz with a number of particularly American darknesses, most notably a prototypical serial killer who cleaves his victims’ heads with an axe ... Much of the novel’s first third explores each character’s particular stakes and family situation... Though the story is a bit too neat, the New Orleans setting is well-drawn and memorable and Rich excels at immersing the reader in the narrative.