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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. Family court judges never fail to surprise me with their irrational thinking. First of all any man who abuses his wife is not fit to be a parent. A man who can't control his anger should not be allowed around his child unsupervised period. Just because he's never been convicted of abusing his child doesn't mean he won't and maybe he hasn't but a man that has such poor judgement and control is not fit to parent without oversight - only a moron would think otherwise. Secondly, why should the mother have to pay? He's the one who made the poor decisions to abuse and he should be the one to pay the price - monetarily and otherwise. Yes it's sad that the little girl may be deprived of her father, but really what kind of father is he - the one that abuses her mother the one that can't even step up and do what's necessary on his own instead the abused mother is to pay for him???? What is this Judge thinking? Another example of how this world rewards bad behavior and punishes those who do right. Way to go Judge - NOT.

  2. Right on. Legalize it. We can take billions away from the drug cartels and help reduce violence in central America and more unwanted illegal immigration all in one fell swoop. cut taxes on the savings from needless incarcerations. On and stop eroding our fourth amendment freedom or whatever's left of it.

  3. "...a switch from crop production to hog production "does not constitute a significant change."??? REALLY?!?! Any judge that cannot see a significant difference between a plant and an animal needs to find another line of work.

  4. Why do so many lawyers get away with lying in court, Jamie Yoak?

  5. Future generations will be amazed that we prosecuted people for possessing a harmless plant. The New York Times came out in favor of legalization in Saturday's edition of the newspaper.

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