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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. Poor Judge Brown probably thought that by slavishly serving the godz of the age her violations of 18th century concepts like due process and the rule of law would be overlooked. Mayhaps she was merely a Judge ahead of her time?

  2. in a lawyer discipline case Judge Brown, now removed, was presiding over a hearing about a lawyer accused of the supposedly heinous ethical violation of saying the words "Illegal immigrant." (IN re Barker) http://www.in.gov/judiciary/files/order-discipline-2013-55S00-1008-DI-429.pdf .... I wonder if when we compare the egregious violations of due process by Judge Brown, to her chiding of another lawyer for politically incorrectness, if there are any conclusions to be drawn about what kind of person, what kind of judge, what kind of apparatchik, is busy implementing the agenda of political correctness and making off-limits legit advocacy about an adverse party in a suit whose illegal alien status is relevant? I am just asking the question, the reader can make own conclsuion. Oh wait-- did I use the wrong adjective-- let me rephrase that, um undocumented alien?

  3. of course the bigger questions of whether or not the people want to pay for ANY bussing is off limits, due to the Supreme Court protecting the people from DEMOCRACY. Several decades hence from desegregation and bussing plans and we STILL need to be taking all this taxpayer money to combat mostly-imagined "discrimination" in the most obviously failed social program of the postwar period.

  4. You can put your photos anywhere you like... When someone steals it they know it doesn't belong to them. And, a man getting a divorce is automatically not a nice guy...? That's ridiculous. Since when is need of money a conflict of interest? That would mean that no one should have a job unless they are already financially solvent without a job... A photographer is also under no obligation to use a watermark (again, people know when a photo doesn't belong to them) or provide contact information. Hey, he didn't make it easy for me to pay him so I'll just take it! Well heck, might as well walk out of the grocery store with a cart full of food because the lines are too long and you don't find that convenient. "Only in Indiana." Oh, now you're passing judgement on an entire state... What state do you live in? I need to characterize everyone in your state as ignorant and opinionated. And the final bit of ignorance; assuming a photo anyone would want is lucky and then how much does your camera have to cost to make it a good photo, in your obviously relevant opinion?

  5. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood has stated in “The Rule of Law in Times of Stress” (2003), “that neither laws nor the procedures used to create or implement them should be secret; and . . . the laws must not be arbitrary.” According to the American Bar Association, Wood’s quote drives home this point: The rule of law also requires that people can expect predictable results from the legal system; this is what Judge Wood implies when she says that “the laws must not be arbitrary.” Predictable results mean that people who act in the same way can expect the law to treat them in the same way. If similar actions do not produce similar legal outcomes, people cannot use the law to guide their actions, and a “rule of law” does not exist.

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