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Book Review: 'Black and White on the Rocks' examines how law and justice influence lives

September 11, 2013
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A review by Cynthia Baker
 

baker-cynthia Baker

Lawyers may deal with it more than any other profession: that place between self-interest and principle. The recently published novel, “Black and White on the Rocks,” takes its readers to that place, again and again. The novel’s author, Fredrick Barton, weaves a story of love, crime, and power in 1988-1989 New Orleans.

Through the main character of Mike Barnett, a well-regarded movie critic for a New Orleans newspaper, readers meet a terrific cast of characters, including Mike’s professional colleagues, a federal judge and his family, several lawyers and their clients, and other citizens and miscreants of the Big Easy. References to actual New Orleanian politicians complement Mike Barnett’s quest: to find out why Judge Delacroix, a highly respected judge who handed down a spate of pro-civil rights rulings in the ‘60s, ruled as he did in a lawsuit that changed Mike’s life.
 

bw-otr-1col.jpg Author: Fredrick Barton, “Black and White on the Rocks” (2013, University of New Orleans Press, 388 pages) used with book cover, if available

As the title suggests, “Black and White on the Rocks” involves race, alcohol and tough relationships. However, the legal center of the book is Retif v. Greive, a civil case concerning a building permit for the Thomas Jefferson Magnet High School. Even to lawyers, this might seem like a snoozy premise, but this particular building permit opens the door to the novel’s sweeping treatment of ideas: friendship, forgiveness, addiction, power, despair, and faith. On its way to the United States Supreme Court and long after the case is settled, Retif v. Greive demonstrates how law and justice influence lives far beyond those named in the caption.

The novel also addresses more nuanced aspects of the law in an intelligent and interesting way. For example, when a lawyer fails to make partner at one firm and then goes to work for another, does he owe loyalty beyond that required by the rules of professional responsibility to his new firm and its clients? How far away from journalistic truth is legal truth? And how does the law of political line drawing determine people’s sense of democracy and power? As a Washington Post critic has noted, Barton “is interested in the why of things.” In weaving this tale, Barton raises these and other interesting legal issues without a trace of pedantic drudgery.

Regarding race, the author blends his characters’ lives in ways that allow readers to see racism from almost every perspective. About halfway through the novel, Mike Barnett, who is white, observes that “[c]enturies old boundaries had placed the City of New Orleans in a geographical straightjacket” and contemplates the idea of a metropolitan government. He argues to his dear friend and professional colleague, who is black, that good government needs to trump racial politics. The disagreement that follows makes painfully clear some of the many tragedies of racism, even between friends who strive not to be racist.

The book takes readers on an architectural, historical, and culinary romp through New Orleans. In the place also known as “The City that Care Forgot,” readers enjoy Mike and his friends’ discussions at some of the most famous restaurants in the United States. Even if you have never been to New Orleans, you will feel like you know the city better due to Barton’s artful lagniappes, a Creole term for small gifts, of sumptuous cuisine and cultural landmarks.

Another unique aspect of this novel is how the author, himself a film critic, explores the themes of the novel with movie references and reviews. In particular, reviews of “Mississippi Burning,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “A Thin Blue Line” serve to enlighten readers’ understanding of how deeply race and racism continue to influence how we see our world – in the news, at the theatre, at our workplaces, and in our communities. Any film buff would enjoy the novel just for the reviews (all of actual movies) alone. References to Claude Lelouch’s “And Now My Love” help tell the love story of a happy marriage, a rare treasure in today’s media culture.

The novel’s two minor detractions spring from a combination of absence and abundance. Other than mentioning the sounds of the Mardis Gras parades, this wonderful novel about New Orleans seems strangely empty of music. Expletives, on the other hand, are plentiful and, at times, almost gratuitous. Finally, fair warning to any reader: If this book were a movie (and I think it could be made into a very good one), it would almost have to be rated R based on hard language, intense violence, and sexual content.

I commend “Black and White on the Rocks” to our legal community. It’s a trip to New Orleans, a love story, and a murder mystery, all in one. •

__________

Cynthia Baker is a clinical professor of law at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
 

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  1. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

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  3. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

  4. JLAP and other courtiers ... Those running court systems, have most substance abuse issues. Probably self medicating to cover conscience issues arising out of acts furthering govt corruption

  5. I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Church's comment, above. Indiana lawyers were especially fortunate to benefit from Tom Pyrz' leadership and foresight at a time when there has been unprecedented change in the legal profession. Consider how dramatically computer technology and its role in the practice of law have changed over the last 25 years. The impact of the great recession of 2008 dramatically changed the composition and structure of law firms across the country. Economic pressures altered what had long been a routine, robust annual recruitment process for law students and recent law school graduates. That has, in turn, impacted law school enrollment across the country, placing upward pressure on law school tuition. The internet continues to drive significant changes in the provision of legal services in both public and private sectors. The ISBA has worked to make quality legal representation accessible and affordable for all who need it and to raise general public understanding of Indiana laws and procedures. How difficult it would have been to tackle each of these issues without Tom's leadership. Tom has set the tone for positive change at the ISBA to meet the evolving practice needs of lawyers of all backgrounds and ages. He has led the organization with vision, patience, flexibility, commitment, thoughtfulness & even humor. He will, indeed, be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Tom, for all you've done and all the energy you've invested in making the ISBA an excellent, progressive, highly responsive, all-inclusive, respectful & respected professional association during his tenure there.

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