Joy Castro’s Hell or High Water takes place in a post-Katrina New Orleans, where things may look “normal” to tourists, but natives know the city still has a long way to go. Nola Céspedes, a Cuban-American New Orleans journalist, has just been assigned to write a story about Katrina’s impact on the city’s registered sex offenders, some of whom have slipped “off the grid” since the hurricane.
Nola’s assignment requires her to contact and interview convicted sex offenders – primarily men who have been “rehabilitated” since prison. The label of “sex offender” is such a blanket term, but Nola’s paper isn’t interested in public nudity and other nonviolent crimes. Her job is to focus on the city’s “hardcore” offenders – namely pedophiles and rapists.
Such an assignment has cast a cold, dark shadow over Nola’s life, and it’s getting harder for her to maintain personal and family relationships in the midst of such heavy, depressing research. At the same time, New Orleans is shocked by a series of sexually violent and perplexing murders – and Nola knows that the perpetrator may very well be the next person she interviews.
Written with a dark, subtle edge of noir, Joy Castro’s Hell or High Water is quite an unconventional mystery. Sure, it has an unsolved murder that is central to the plot, but it’s also a book about culture, race, history, journalism, sociology, and government. It’s ambitious, but Castro manages to weave all these elements together in a way that is thought-provoking, informative, entertaining, and terrifying.
Rape and pedophilia are heavy topics, but thankfully, Castro knows how to give readers time to catch their breath. Nola is trying to write a hard-hitting, memorable story, but she’s also exploring aspects of her own history for the first time. The book is peppered with topics like Cuban heritage, recipes, psychology, academia, music, and art. While it sometimes felt like a little too much going at once, it also accurately reflects the feel and rhythm of life in New Orleans. There’s a lot going on there. It’s a cultural mecca of sorts, but in a matter of city blocks, life can range from fleur de lis, courtyard gardens, and beignets to poverty, crime, and destruction. And no one knows how sharp the divide can be better than Nola. New Orleans may have officially recovered according to the media, but in Castro’s book, the residents tell a different story.
My only real problem with the book was the ending. I don’t care for spoilers, though, so let’s just say it was too abrupt for my taste. Nola’s narrative voice was getting stronger and stronger, and then….nothing. It’s just over. I found it to be uncharacteristic of the rest of the novel. Even so, Castro’s novel is a hybrid of a book with a sassy-smart, neo-noire narrator that asks readers to consider topics that you won’t find in most mysteries.
Joy Castro’s debut novel Hell or High Water is a hard story to categorize. It’s one-third a straight-up crime-thriller, one-third a lovingly detailed guide to the good, bad, and ugly of post-Katrina New Orleans, and one-third an intimate character study of a deeply flawed, potentially damaged protagonist and her rocky personal life.
The ultimate confluence of these three disparate subjects results in a fascinating conclusion that seems to be designed to leave the reader’s brain demanding a reevaluation of everything it think it learned along the way.
Told in the first person, protagonist Nola Céspedes grew living in the Desire Projects in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. Until they were torn down in 2001, these buildings and their surroundings were widely considered to be one of the city’s most crime-filled areas and were often referred to by the locals who inhabited them as “Dirty D.”
Through hard work and good grades though, Céspedes managed to escape that life, earn herself a degree in journalism from Tulane, and land herself a spot writing fluff pieces about jazz fests and plantations for the Living and Lagniappe section of the Times-Picayune newspaper.
Overflowing with passion and determination, Nola is determined to prove her worth and earn herself a spot on the city desk, a necessary but temporary stop, where she believes she can make a name for herself before using that success as a springboard to securing a job at the New York Times and thus moving far, far away from New Orleans. She’s clearly got the talent, if only her mouth could get out of her way.
Her real trouble begins when Bailey, the paper’s editor, pulls her off her regular assignment to research a paper on sexual predators shortly after a young tourist goes missing. She’s the third girl in recent weeks to disappear. Things didn’t end well for the last two.
Determined to do a bang up job, yet slowly spiraling out of control, Céspedes interviews convicted sex offenders who have been released and forced to register, inmates serving time for sex related crimes, and even some folks who managed to slip between the cracks when Katrina hit.
As she records and later transcribes her interviews, and as she begins to compile the shocking, sad statistics on recidivism among offenders, Céspedes becomes more and more unhinged, taking unnecessary risks in both her personal and professional life.
Her friends spot the changes in her demeanor, but they’re unable to penetrate Céspedes’ defenses. She’s an unknown, a mystery, a wild card, and it seems all to clear that she’s predisposed to eventually explode.
How well can you ever really know the inner workings of a person’s desires? That’s the question steadily beating at the heart of Castro’s novel as she examines the lives of sexual predators and the stories behind their crimes. Have some, like those guilty of nothing more than urinating in public, been inappropriately branded for life by their mistake? Should 19 year-old who slept with his 17 year-old girlfriend be required to register his whereabouts for the rest of his days? Do the victims of sexually motivated crimes ever truly recover, or are pieces of them forever changed?
Castro doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but Hell or High Water’s probing examination of this subject matter, set against the stark realities of post Katrina life in New Orleans, makes for a fascinatingly disturbing, timely piece that educates almost nearly as much as it entertains.
Hell or High Water
By Joy Castro
Thomas Dunne Books