Will every book set in New Orleans from now on be a Katrina novel? Amanda Boyden's second novel, Babylon Rolling, is set in the 2004 shadow of Hurricane Ivan, but it's impossible to dissociate its facts from the news reports of the more famous storm a year after. The deft character work in Babylon Rolling is more than up to the task of competing with the image of a post-Katrina city, even though its organization falls short of its ambition in the final chapters.
The duly diverse residents of the Uptown block where Boyden sets her story scatter at the news of the hurricane, just days after a horrific motorcycle accident drew them all out into the street. Cerise, who suffered third-degree burns when a teen biker knocked a lit grill over onto her husband Roy, endures the overbearing attention of her anxious daughter as she faces the practical loss of her hands. Roy's savior, a Minnesota transplant named Ed, accepts a ride from his new neighbors—Indian-American researchers with roots in rural Louisiana—for himself and his two children. (Meanwhile, the kids see the storm as the fulfillment of their wish that a "beastie" would close their hated school forever.) Ed's wife Ariel stays behind to juggle two famous guests at the down-at-the-heels hotel she manages, hoping her employees can teach her what proper preparedness means. Long-time resident Philomenia, who is keeping a meticulous journal of her social failures among the other residents, hopes her invalid husband will die in the middle of it. And would-be drug dealer Fearius, raking in higher-than-usual profits at his brother's spot, determines not to die or get caught so soon after returning from juvie.
Boyden's debut, Pretty Little Dirty, took a story of teenage girls gone wild, shading in its protagonists until they popped out against their bland Midwestern background; here, she uses the ordering concept of the houses on Orchid Street to explain the characters without stressing their interdependence. But none of them get enough attention, and the climax of their storm experiences feels rushed. The novel ends just when the frenetic narration picks up its own rhythm; this is rare, but it could probably an extra hundred pages to do its multifaceted cast any justice. Still, Babylon Rolling represents a sure-footed step into a potentially hazardous subgenre.