The Marauders. Tom Cooper. Crown, 2015. 26.00. Call us or visit us to buy a copy!
In his debut novel, local author Tom Cooper delves into the heart of the Bayou in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. This story follows Lindquist, a one-armed oxycontin-addicted shrimper searching for Jean LaFitte’s treasure in the thick and swampy backwoods of Louisiana’s Barataria region. Along the way, he becomes involved with a cast of characters converging on the Bayou from New Orleans to New York in a time of national emergency, when Louisianans are left to fend for themselves in the wake of an environmental crisis.
Cooper is quick to paint a realistic portrait of the cruelties that humans are capable of inflicting on one another for money. The characters in this book are all deeply flawed, forced to make bad decisions out of poverty and physical suffering. Desperation, Cooper shows, can drive a man to do just about anything. Cosgrove, for example, finds himself involved in a drug stealing operation with a man he meets while doing community service in New Orleans–community service that consists of sprucing up a dying woman’s home so it will be worth money when the city reclaims it, and stealing her valuables from the attic while they’re at it. The novel begins with two murderous twins, the Toup brothers, debating whether or not to murder Lindquist for his innocent forays into the swamp, where the Toups grow hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana. The teenage Wes Trench meets Lindquist after he leaves his father’s shrimping boat, in a fight brought on by the tensions of the oil spill, which has left the residents of the Barataria destitute, depending for their livelihoods on a shrimp trade that has dried up. Wes’s mother drowned during Katrina, when his father insisted against her will that they stay in the Bayou to weather the storm. Grimes grew up in the Barataria and hated every minute of it, leaving for New York as soon as he could. He is back in his hometome representing BP, getting desperate fisherman to sign gag orders in exchange for $10,000.00. And Lindquist is broke, divorced, with an estranged daughter who works as a stripper and visits him only for money, depending on pain medicine to get him through the physical agony of a lifetime of backbreaking work on shrimp boats, for hardly any money.
Cooper manages to take this cast of characters and weave them into a complex and vivid portrayal of life in the modern Barataria. The setting is one of the most compelling parts of the book: for many readers, the swamps are a distant dream. In the city it is easy to forget that there are wild places just a half an hour away, where alligators grow larger than men and poisonous snakes slip through the brackish tides. But after the oil spill, none of this is left untouched: this book is suffused with the scent of crude oil rising from the bayou, fish belly-up in the water, pelicans soaked in petroleum. The characters are quirky, often funny, lovable in their own messed-up ways, but reading about the state of the swamp is truly heartbreaking, and gives this story its weight.
Although this is in many ways a book about the Barataria after the oil spill, Cooper never lets us forget that we are in Louisiana, where a kind of magic, at least in the fictional world, might always have its small victories over the grating of reality. All the seemingly fantastical elements of Louisiana lore come to life in this story, from killer alligators to voodoo curses to Jean LaFitte’s long-lost treasure. And this is the crux of the tale: Louisiana is a place that cannot be defeated, even in the face of years of tragedy. The swamps hold something magical, something terrifying and intangible that refuses to break, even under the weight of crude oil, poverty, and flood waters.