“I saw within myself,” admits our narrator, “a kind of ignorance that grew deeper the more I looked at it.” Sounds about right for his novel, too: the more deeply Vengeance draws us in—really, it’s hard to look away—the greater its ambiguity.
The mystery gathers despite major elements straight out of the real world. Among those is the narrator, unnamed but unmistakable: Zachary Lazar of New Orleans, author of highly-praised novels and the 2009 memoir Evening’s Empire. The latter work comes up often in the new one, for Empire considers the murder of Lazar’s father, and Vengeance delivers, ultimately, another beautiful meditation on an ugly homicide. Likewise painfully familiar is the fiction’s central setting, the “rectilinear massiveness” of Angola state prison, the final home for most Louisiana murderers. In Angola, “a life sentence literally means life,” and the book spares us neither the local draconian reality nor the harsh implications for the whole US penal system. Both the novel’s subject and author, in other words, stand up to fact-checking. Nevertheless, what the text’s “about,” its central story, proves bruising yet insubstantial.
No record search will turn up Kendrick King of Jefferson Parish, convicted at age twenty-two as accessory to murder. The case is a fiction, that is, and even within that fiction, King isn’t the killer. Nonetheless, the authorities don’t hesitate to throw the book at him, a youngster with “no money, no car,” just out of ten days in jail—and black of course. Granted, his previous offense was negligible—and his first—but the police have a witness, sort of, who puts King at the scene of the crime, in the notorious Algiers neighborhood—black, of course.
This flimsy evidence, along with the unhappy truths it obscures, is dealt out slowly, with most of the cards turned over by the Lazar-surrogate. Compelled by “the problem of seeing anything clearly in the time and place in which we live,” his investigation into the American underclass proves so subtle, so alert to how a callous system encourages self-destruction, it invites comparison to In Cold Blood. Kendrick’s last girlfriend, for instance, was a high school track star, college bound, but what the state prosecutors asked of her left a bad wound:
[They] went to house parties, got drunk, got high—it was a way, she realized now, of not thinking too much about what she’d said at Kendrick’s trial, of what it had cost him. It went on like this, and then Katrina happened . . .
Force Five wallops tear holes everywhere, in lives like these, and Vengeance finds fresh embodiment for the dislocation. Communication with King suffers repeated breakdowns; often narrator and prisoner can’t even exchange letters, and on the outside, too, discoveries erupt after long silence or out of sequence. Early on, Lazar considers the constellation Orion, and his book itself presents a constellation, its parts far separate. As this takes shape, a piece or two can feel forced—manipulative—but there’s never the neat “click” of a detective story. Rather, every clue generates greater sympathy—in particular those that turn up in King’s point of view. Recurrent scenes take us into his interrogation, and a couple present alternative versions of the murder. In every case, the suspect feels guilt closing in:
. . . after a while it becomes hard to remember what they know and what they’ve just imagined about him, what he knows about himself and what he’s just imagined. The longer he sits there, the more he begins to imagine himself as a twenty-one-year-old like all the other twenty-one-year-old-black males, divorced from his life like the young men in the photographs . . .
Simple language, the stammering of a scared boy, makes a natural fit for such a passage. Yet these scenes are far from the only ones that rely on a homely style, very different from the intricate mosaic of the plot. The narrator, too, falls into repetition, so that his sections of Vengeance come to recall the oratory of the Old Testament. Throughout, numinous figures loom. The opening chapter gives us not only Orion the Hunter (a detective, perhaps?) but also Angola’s annual “passion play, The Life of Jesus Christ,” at which the wholly imaginary King (double-K!) first speaks with the mostly actual author. Later, the novel invokes Christ’s prophet, Isaiah, whose verses provide the title. Such stuff isn’t mere authorial decoration, either. King’s mother remains impressed by his regal “spark” and his broken former girlfriend admits he cast a spell: “just one of those people.” As for the narrator, poking into the lives of strangers prompts thorny questions—“why I had ended up there as a journalist (or whatever I was).” In one hair-raising later scene, Lazar nearly destroys himself, as if to join the violence surrounding him, “a character in a story.”
That story shares aspects of his earlier one, his reflections on his father’s murder, and Lazar gets the connection. Still the new text wrestles, to cite Genesis, with a different angel. The difference isn’t just between memoir and fiction, but also between a glittering ‘60s shard (“evening’s empire” comes from “Mr. Tambourine Man”) and a more intimidating signifier like Vengeance. Lazar’s 2008 novel Sway took its title from a Jagger-Richards number; Dylan showed up again in 2014’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant, and both books featured historical figures: the first Jagger and Richards and others, the second Meyer Lansky and his roughneck crew. Both earned plenty of praise, and deservedly, but this time, the author reverses the conceit, placing imaginary men and women in a landscape we recognize all too well.
In that darkness, Lazar has kept his eyes open. His text incorporates photos of New Orleans murder locations, from the text Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish by Deborah Luster, and his initial prison visit leaves him with “more than ninety pages of... notes.” Vengeance does allow the occasional happier note, like a chapter celebrating Mardi Gras, but these are contrapuntal; overall, things feel bleak, under “so much pressure,” as one of the few kinder voices puts it, with “so many ways . . . to go wrong.” The impact recalls Capote and In Cold Blood, as I say, but when Vengeance cites an American writer of that era, it’s James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son, raising a cry about the “bewildered rage” of the country’s disenfranchised. Those locked out of the feast at least enjoy a fresh hearing in this text, a half-century after Notes. In so doing, too, the work joins one of the most important of the last several years, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The German novel considers the pariahs of that country, the new African refugees, and like Vengeance it’s a product of challenging research; as Lazar went to Angola, Erpenbeck went to protests and asylums. Across oceans, comparable talents fled their comfort zones and tested their skills out in harder country, in the process both bringing honor to their art and reclaiming one of its essential purposes: to stand on the watchtower and tell us of the night.