As poster children for Hurricane Katrina holdouts, Zackery Bowen and Addie Hall were survivors who gave the disaster an upbeat human face. Thirteen months later, they were both dead: Bowen jumped from a hotel roof with a suicide note admitting he killed and dismembered her in the French Quarter apartment they shared. Ethan Brown grapples with the crime in his newly adopted home city via Shake The Devil Off: A True Story Of The Murder That Rocked New Orleans, but never satisfyingly reveals the lives behind those defiant images.
To locals, Bowen and Hall couldn’t be considered true “Quartericans,” since they both arrived from elsewhere, but Katrina bound them to the area a few short weeks after they met at the bar where they worked. Without the constraints of work after most of the city evacuated, they joined their neighbors in a peculiar idyll of candlelit chats and sleeping in the street. (Around that time, Hall memorably told a New York Times reporter that she flashed police cars to ensure frequent patrols, a fact that appears in many of her obituaries.) As the city recovered, their relationship dissolved into drunken fights and recriminations, but they moved in together, apparently willing to try again.
Brown posits that Bowen suffered from advanced untreated post-traumatic stress disorder related to his stint in the Army, which included terrifying trials at Abu Ghraib. Brown gathers testimony from Bowen’s friends and the record of his non-honorable discharge; his research is thoughtful and incisive, but creates an uncomfortable proximity between post-Katrina violence and Bowen’s specific troubles. The deaths were a sensationalist’s treat, but Brown strings them together with more prosaic, inherently unrelated crimes. His investigation into Hall’s past is also problematic, piecing together drinking stories and comments from friends to intimate that that she was abusive toward Bowen.
As Shake The Devil Off grows to include Brown’s firsthand experience with the post-storm crime wave—he admits to being afraid to leave his wife home alone—Brown drifts away from Bowen and Hall, even crossing the line between intrepid journalist and morbid voyeur, to make multiple visits to the vacant apartment where Hall’s body was found. The couple once recognized as a colorful anecdote end this book as unknowns still.