|Excerpt from US Navy photo http://www.navy.mil/view_single.asp?id=27553, an aerial view from a United States Navy helicopter showing floodwaters around the entire downtown New Orleans area. The Louisiana Superdome is in the center. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
An unexpected thought occurred to me yesterday as I finished reading two of James Lee Burke’s novels about Cajun life in Louisiana. Even though Burke so vividly describes the landscape in which the Cajuns pass their lives, even though his characters are so compulsively drawn that one almost feels they could leap off the page into one’s lap, even though his tough guy prose and attitudes are underlaid by a persistent strain of homey philosophy, could it be --- in spite of all evidence to the contrary --- that everything he writes does not depict any life actually to be found in Louisiana, that none of this is real, but is rather a complete world drawn from Burke’s vivid imagination?
I began to think about this when, recommending these books to a friend, I had to admit I have never met anyone who even remotely resembles the characters who inhabit Burke’s pages. Certainly it is hard to think there has ever been a real live detective anything like his hero Dave Robicheaux, and it is certainly hard to imagine anyone with the peculiar mix of characteristics --- a love of violence and willingness to use it, a dedication to a kind of warped idea of justice, an ultimately maverick carelessness about what he does ---- like Robicheaux’s closest friend, Clete Purcell.
Burke wrote his first book when he was in his twenties, and I am pretty sure that was the one that set me off on reading his works. Unless my memory betrays me, it was about a man who was unjustly locked up in an horrendous Louisiana chain gang kind of prison, and it was so real it made my flesh creep.
Since then, through dozens of novels, most dealing with crime, and in the form of thrillers or mysteries, Burke has dazzled reviewers with the fluency and vivacity of his prose, the aptness of his descriptions of people and their works, and the sheer passion with which he records the usually nefarious works of his characters.
The two books I have just read are The Tin Roof Blowdown in which he has used the tragic destruction of New Orleans by the twin forces of Hurricane Katrina and the neglect, and possibly malicious inaction of the U.S. federal government, as the background for a tale of almost majestic hjuman folly and nastiness. As thousands of people were swept away, overcome by the breaking of the neglected levies that were supposed to hold back the flood, and those who remained suffered, James Burke describes how looting and theft by the criminal and low-life elements of Louisiana society compounded the misery and overwhelmed even the few honest forces of law and order.
Specifically the book is built around two events: the first is when a junkie priest, who is a friend of Robicheaux’s, is trying to hack his way into the attic of a flooded home in which twenty or thirty people are trapped by the still rising waters, a family of petty criminals, who have just raped two young women, hack the priest to death and steal the boat from which he was working. The second incident concerns what these low-life people did with the boat they had stolen: they used it to enter an abandoned home, where in an insensate attack of looting, they ripped the walls apart and found hidden stores of counterfeit dollars, blood diamonds (imported from Africa) and drugs of various kinds. When they learned that the house they had robbed belonged to the region’s main mafia connection, their fate was sealed, and Robicheaux was only hoping he could get to them on the rape charges before they were wiped out by the hired guns of the houseowner.
This book has been described as the novel which established Burke as one of America’s outstanding writers. His description of the Katrina hurricane and its consequences is probably the finest written so far, and its use as a backdrop for Burke’s grimly imagined events makes a continuum that is totally gripping. The book is studded with aphorisms, like this one:
“If you have stacked a little time in the can, or beat your way across the country bucking bales and picking melons, or worked out of a Manpower Inc. day-labor office on skid row, you probably already know that human beings are infinitely complex and not subject to easy categorization…I’m always amazed at how the greatest complexity as well as personal courage is usually found in our most nondescript members. People who look as interesting as a mud wall have the personal histories of classical Greeks. I sometimes think that every person’s experience, if translated into flame, would be enough to melt the flesh from his bones…”
One gets his point, although the method of describing it is entirely original. Or here is another one:
“William Blake described evil as an electrified tiger prowling the forests of the night. I wondered if Blake’s tiger was out there now, burning brightly in the trees, the pads of its feet walking softly across a lawn, it's slattern breath and the quickness of its step only seconde away from the place where children played and our loved ones dwelled.”
Sufficient to say that someone turned up who was hired by a prominent man to take care of his problems by whatever means he wanted. This person began to stalk Dave and his family, and Burke posits the confrontation as one between evil and good.
The second book, published in 2005, is called Crusader’s Cross and it concerns the memory of a young girl for whom Dave’s brother fell twenty years before when they were both sixteen. He discovered, too late, that she was already working as a prostitute, and just as he was about to run away with her, she disappeared and was never seen or heard of again. The brother turns up, recalling to Dave memories of this unfinished disappearance, and the book is about a search for her to confirm or deny the brother’s belief that she was never killed, as most authorities believed. This one involves the full panaply of Dave’s peculiarity: a recovered alcoholic with an on-again, off-again relationship with police work, he finds the weight of this search so heavy that he goes on a bender which puts his job at odds again, and which finishes with him losing such self-respect as he was managing to carry through his life. The denoument is so life-like it is almost unsatisfactory. The girl turns up, but in circumstances that none of them could have envisaged. Dave has been following leads, and blaming the wrong people throughout the book, and he ends it with an almost customary outburst of social philosophy:
“Capitalists are hanged by the rope they sell their enemies. Mystics who help formulate great religious movements writhe in sexual torment over impure thoughts a shoe salesman leaves behind with adolescence. A Crusader Knight in search of the True Cross returns to Marseilles from Palestine with a trunkful of Saracen robes, inside of which is a plague-infested mouse. My experience has been, like George Orwell’s, that human beings are possessed of much more courage and self-sacrifice than we give them credit for, and when the final test comes, they usually go down with the decks awash and the guns blazing. Our moral failure lies in the frailty of our vision and not in our hearts. Our undoing is in our collective willingness to trust those whom we shouldn’t, those who invariably use our best instincts against us. But as a police officer I also learned long ago that justice finds us in its own time and of its own accord, and in ways we never, and I mean absolutely never, anticipate.”A very remarkable writer is this James Lee Burke, who stands somewhere between the low-lifes about whom he writes, and the justice he would like to believe in.