cover image King Zeno

King Zeno

Nathaniel Rich. MCD, $28 (386p) ISBN 978-0-374-18131-4

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. The novel’s three main story lines follow army veteran and detective Bill Bastrop, hellbent on finding the killer; a mafia matriarch, Beatrice Vizzini, who’s trying to turn her business straight; and the titular Izzy Zeno, a struggling jazz musician forced into petty theft to make ends meet. Much of the novel’s first third explores each character’s particular stakes and family situation, introducing Bastrop’s increasingly estranged wife, Izzy’s soon-to-be-pregnant wife, and Beatrice’s simple-minded and domineering son, Georgio. After an encounter with one of Bastrop’s former war buddies turns violent, the plot gathers considerable momentum, setting the three characters on the requisite collision course that ends at the construction site for the city’s new canal. 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. Agent: Elyse Cheney, The Cheney Agency (Jan.)