A review by 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.
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.