The people of Louisiana first began to call themselves the Cajun Navy during Katrina, when people like Todd Terrell went to rescue their neighbors in New Orleans. They revived the name last year when Baton Rouge experienced what residents now call the Great Flood. In swampy Louisiana, the old joke says, at any one time half the state is under water and the other half is under indictment. There are the big storms that capture the attention of the public, like Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and Katrina, 40 years later—but every year that Louisiana doesn’t get a named storm, it floods just the same. Today there are at least three separate outfits who go by the Cajun Navy moniker, and dozens more who’ve been inspired by it, including but not limited to the Cajun Army (for people without boats), the Cajun Special Forces, the Cajun Airlift, and the Cajun Green Cross, as well as the Texas Navy and the Cracker Navy in Florida, which was formed during Hurricane Irma. In Texas, during the week that Harvey hit, pretty much every Louisiana man with a boat identified himself as Cajun Navy, as did many more who weren’t from Louisiana but were among the thousands who converged in Texas from across the country. These volunteers found each other on Facebook, in parking lots, and on Zello, a walkie-talkie app that allowed dispatchers, many of them complete newbies, to match people in need with willing and able rescuers. The app was the key to the Cajun Navy’s efficacy. It was reportedly downloaded by 6 million people in the week after Harvey hit and now has about 100 million registered users.
By the time I arrived, the Cajun Navy had launched hundreds of boats. Todd called a Louisiana politician who had been helping facilitate Cajun Navy operations in Texas. He was sympathetic to Todd’s gripes about slow, ineffective, and possibly jealous local law enforcement—people who likely resented the sudden intrusion and soaring popularity of the Cajun Navy. “The state police can’t stop you from driving to Texas,” the politician said. “In a time of disaster, you can break the rules and still do the right thing.” Todd added that if he were ever in danger, he hoped the person to rescue him would be a fireman. “They act first and deal with issues after.”
While Todd made arrangements to take his boats to Texas, the women sat at the picnic bench and continued to field calls. One of them, Em Saunier, was a real estate agent with bright blonde hair and a sharp tongue. She had stopped by right after the storm to drop off some goody bags filled with treats for the rescuers, and Todd later asked her to stick around and help. She wore a headset like an air-traffic controller’s and spoke with cool deliberation into the mic, even when people on the other end were panicking. A question came in through the Facebook channel, a woman asking how could she become a part of the Cajun Navy. Em answered, “Show up.”
“What has followed in the wake of 1989 and the suicide of the Soviet empire,” she wrote in an essay on the response of her peers to the Bosnian genocide, “is the final victory of capitalism, and of the ideology of consumerism, which entails the discrediting of ‘the political’ as such.” No triumphalism, then, about the End of History. If the political was hollowed, art was trivialized and collective life debased. All the valor and drama seemed to her to have vanished from the slack-jawed, victorious West. There was no ardor or ethics or conflict—and therefore no style, no virtue, no taste. What was lacking, in a word, was seriousness.
Sontag, was not, though, as her editor Benjamin Taylor admits in the introduction to this gathering of stories from across her career, a committed short-story writer. She turned to the form in order to evade what Chekhov called “autobiographophobia”, which Taylor uses to mean the fear of writing and reflecting directly about one’s life. Evading this fear, Sontag clearly found the name “stories” very helpful: half of them are pure autobiography. “Pilgrimage”, for example, which opens the volume, is a memoir of Sontag’s youth in southern California, and an account of her visit with a boyfriend to the home of an ageing Thomas Mann. The only reason why this did not become an essay, it seems, is that the encounter was dull and disappointing, and so difficult to reflect on: Mann had “only sententious formulas to deliver. And I uttered nothing but tongue-tied simplicities, though I was full of complex feeling. We were neither of us at our best.”