10 August 2012

James Lee Burke

"Creole Belle"

At the end of “The Glass Rainbow,” James Lee Burke’s 18th novel in his Detective Dave Robicheaux series, his hero is shot in the back.  The blow was like a smack from a fist between the shoulder blades.”  Robicheaux sees a paddle wheeler in the fog, its gangway lowered in the shallows.  He sees a black medic from his platoon pressing a cellophane cigarette wrapper on the hole in his lung.  He sees his father, Big Al, and his mother Alafair Mae Guillory, “both of them on the bow, smiling.”  He hears the paddle wheel churn to life on the stern, and then he sees his buddy Clete Purcell, “emerge from the fog on the bank, his face white from blood loss.  He stumbled up the gangway like an irascible drunk wrecking a party, wrapping his arms around me, locking his hands behind my back, pulling me back down toward the bank.  His mouth was pressed against the side of my head, and I could hear the hoarseness of his voice an inch from my ear: ‘You can’t go, Streak.  The Bobbsey Twins from Homicide are for ever.’"

And that’s the way it went in the year 2009, the two of us locked together on a gangplank on the banks of Bayou Teche, in New Iberia, Louisiana, praying for the pinkness of another dawn, like finding safe harbor inside a giant conch shell, the winds of youth and spring echoing eternally.”

James Lee Burke was born in Houston, Texas in 1936 and grew up on the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast.  He gained degrees from the University of Missouri and has worked in many roles, including English professor, social worker and oil pipeliner.  He has been married for over fifty years and has four children.  He has written over thirty novels and lives in Missoula, Montana.  So he is now about 76 years old.  Dave Robicheaux, who first appeared in “The Neon Rain” in 1987 as a Lieutenant in the New Orleans Police Department, having seen action in the early years of the Viet Nam war, with a degree in English in his pocket, must now be around 70 years old.

To tell the truth, sad though it would have been, we really thought we had lost him at the end of “The Glass Rainbow” – and it would have been understandable.  His action packed life, through the stresses of police and detective work for many years as well as the struggles of being a recovering alcoholic, would all have taken their toll.  So being shot in the back could well have been curtains.

But….. the opening of the 19th novel in this series, “Creole Belle,” (published here this July) we find him in the recovery facility on St. Charles Avenue in uptown New Orleans, seemingly having morphine dreams.

And his old buddy, Cletus Purcell, has also survived and is still chasing bail skips and mixing his drinks.  So the Bobbsey Twins ride again?

Indeed it seems so, and they are on good form, though Dave clearly isn’t well.  In the first chapter he is visited in the night by Tee Jolie Melton, a young Cajun girl who leaves him an iPod with some music, including “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” because she knew he always liked that song.

But others cannot hear the music, and the girl is nowhere to be found, despite her likeness turning up in a painting by creepy Pierre Dupree, which painting reminds Dave of the song “My Creole Belle” written by Mississippi John Hurt and sung by Taj Mahal.  The plot gets complicated, with Tee Jolie’s little sister turning up in an ice block, Clete’s daughter, Gretchen, appearing possibly as the contract killer who disposes of three low-lifes who were putting the heat on Clete, and Pierre’s ex-wife’s father trying to have Dave whacked.  Meanwhile Dave’s adopted daughter, Alafair, is writing her second novel and his third wife, Molly, attempts to hold things together.

There is a consistent element of Morpheus within this tale, and at a certain point I expect to find that this is “Pincher Martin” style stream of consciousness.  But it also progresses at the customary pace, fuelled by Clete’s dangerous ingestion of booze and po’ boy sandwiches, and by Dave’s knack of upsetting fairly unpleasant people (as well as his friends at times.)

But I like Dave.  As narrator of the series we are beguiled by him, but rarely see him as others might.  He is introduced in “The Neon Rain” (the first book in the series, published in 1987) as having a (still) hard and lean body, with brown skin.  He has an old scar from a “dung-tipped pungi stick like a broken gray snake” embossed on his stomach.   His hair and brush moustache (still) black as ink, except for a white patch above one ear. OK this was twenty-five years ago, but you get the picture.  Others show him respect, as Sam Fitzpatrick, from the US Treasury, says, “’It’s obvious you’re a good cop and a private kind of man, but you’re a Catholic and you must have feelings….’” [The Neon Rain, 102].  He suffers gross indignities and survives:  Then they held my nose and poured the mixture of beer, castor oil, whiskey, and Quaaludes down my throat….” [ibid, 133].  He speaks his mind:  Having been raised in Louisiana, I had always thought that politics was the province of moral invalids,” [ibid, 141]. He has an uncommon eloquence when it comes to summing people up:  His (Nate Baxter’s) sports clothes and two-toned shoes and styled hair gave you the impression of a Nevada real-estate salesman who would sell you a house lot located on an abandoned atomic test site,” [ibid, 211].  And he evidently takes pleasure in the everyday, in life as it is and perhaps should be:  I took the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue to the Garden District {which is where “Creole Belle” starts}.  It was wonderful riding down the esplanade with the window open under the trees, the iron wheels clicking on the tracks, the sunlight and shadow flicking across my arm,” [ibid, 306].  And we see through his eyes a world of colour and scent that is at once exotic and delicious: “I watched the pillared and scrolled ante-bellum homes roll by, the spreading oaks hung with Spanish moss, the small courtyards with their iron gates and whitewashed brick walls, the palm fronds and banana trees that shaded the old, root-cracked sidewalks,” [ibid, 306], though more often than not there is an element of danger, or menace, about the description: “The evening sky was streaked with purple the color of torn plums, and a light rain had stated to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary,”  [ibid, 1].

And he is certainly not without faults.  His first wife, Nicole, leaves him a note:  Dear Dave, I don’t know what you’re looking for, but three years of marriage to you have convinced me I don’t want to be there when you find it….” [The Neon Rain, 191].  He struggles with alcoholism, and for the most part keeps it at bay, but there are lapses:  And in truth, at that moment,” he says, nursing a bottle of Jax beer, “I didn’t have either the courage or the energy to face my own irresponsibility or weakness.  Instead I brooded on the relativity of time, the stark realization that no amount of years could successfully separate me from my nightmarish alcoholic past…..” [ibid, 153].  And he has a remarkable propensity for violence (which perhaps touches primitive instincts within many readers?)  “….anyone who has ever fired a weapon at another human being knows the terrible adrenaline-fed sense of omnipotence and arrogance that you feel at the moment and the secret pleasure you take in the opportunity being provided you.  [ibid, 112].  I readily confess that I have never fired a shot at another human being, but somehow this sentiment rings true, especially in the context of the references to Viet Nam that resurge throughout the books.  Far from admirable; but his name is not Saint Dave!  As he says of himself, “My history is one of alcoholism, depression, violence, and bloodshed.  For much of it I have enormous regret.  For some of it I have no regret at all, and given the chance, I would commit the same deeds again without pause, particularly when it comes to protection of my own,” [Creole Belle, 25].

The series’ genre is that of the crime thriller; the plots are complex; the pace fast; the resolutions bloody.  They are visually exciting, but have not yet made good films (the best attempt, “In The Electric Mist with Confederate Dead," starring Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman and Mary Steenburgen, was sloppily handled by Bertrand Tavernier, showing the difference between being French and being Cajun).  Although the novels have links to the convention of the noir, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Lew Archer tended to work alone, and were hired for individual motives.  Dave works as a professional law enforcement officer, initially within New Orleans, subsequently as a sheriff’s detective in Iberia Parish (New Iberia being a county a few miles out of New Orleans) and his adventures are driven by a sense of justice loosely regulated by the terms of law. 

Dave’s friendship with Clete (Cletus) Purcell is another of the series’ strengths. Clete was with Dave in the NOPD, but his moral compass is missing a few points and so he now works on the periphery of the law, as a licensed Private Investigator.  Clete’s father was a milkman in the Garden District of New Orleans, and he himself is described as being “a big man, with sandy hair and intelligent green eyes,” although his “face looked like it was made from boiled pigskin, except there were stitch scars across the bridge of his nose and through one eyebrow, where he’d been bashed by a pipe when he was a kid,” [The Neon Rain, 10 and rehearsed in Creole Belle on 299]. 

In terms of physical courage, he had no peer,” [Creole Belle, 299]; Dave, “had never known a braver human being.”  However he is given to stupid and senseless acts:  Let’s see, he shot and killed a government witness, stole a concrete mixer and filled a man’s convertible with cement, and destroyed a half-million-dollar home on Lake Ponchartrain with an earth grader,”  [Purple Cane Road, 44].  And he is also sometimes ultra (and sickeningly) violent, such as when he, “drove his fist straight into Woolsey’s mouth,” in “Creole Belle” [page 394].  But the engines that drove the rage and violence living inside Clete Purcel were not easily turned off.  Like all of his addictions – weed and pills and booze and gambling and Cadillac convertibles and fried food and rock and roll and Dixieland music and women….. bloodlust and the wild release of confronting the monsters that waited for him nightly in his dreams were a drug that he could never have too much of,” [ibid, 394].  Clete “is not a fan of complexities.  Or rules.  Or concerns about moral restraint when it came to dealing with child molesters, misogynists, rapists and strong-arm robbers who jack-rolled old people,” [Creole Belle, 382].  He is dangerous, but also fiercely loyal and the overriding impression is of a damaged human being whose strengths far outweigh his weaknesses.  Or so Dave would claim!

So we have Dave Robicheaux, and Clete Purcell.  And we have Louisiana (though in “Swan Peak” they take a break in Montana) as a real presence in the novels: “It rained all that night.  At false dawn a white ground fog rolled out of the swamp, and the cypress trees on the far bank of the bayou looked as black and hard as carved stone,”  [Cadillac Jukebox, 58].  We have colourful villains, usually with sharply defined characteristics, as well as vivid dress senses:  Whitey Bruxal was “Dressed in white slacks and a black short-sleeved shirt with a silver monogram on the pocket, his white hair clipped and neatly combed…..” [Pegasus Descending, 293]; “I found Ronald Bledsoe sitting in a deck chair in front of his cottage, wearing Bermuda shorts, a short-sleeved shirt printed with green flowers, and dark glasses with big round white frames…..." [The Tin Roof Blowdown, 320];  He (Steve Andropolis) wore a new golf cap and a bright yellow golf shirt and gray slacks and tan loafers, as though affecting the appearance of a Florida retiree, but he had big-knuckled hands, a faded blue tattoo of a nude girl on his forearm, and close-set, pig’s eyes….. [Purple Cane Road, 63]. 

His villains sometimes represent those who live on the evils of the past, whether it is the antebellum wealth of the white families who would still be owning slaves if it hadn’t been for the Civil War (a recurrent theme in these books, sometimes with ghosts of long dead soldiers haunting Dave) or, as in “Creole Belle” the character of Alexis Dupree, who was in Ravensbrück in World War II, but not as a detainee.  And there are the villains who represent corruption within the modern day.  Creole Belle” for example is stained throughout by the gulf oil spill, and one shadowy personage in the weft is “the British oil entrepreneur Hubert Donnelly,” who “wore a dark blue suit and a shirt as bright as tin,” [Creole Belle, 422].  His presence in the novel, trying to buy Dave and Clete on behalf of a multinational oil company, touches on the depth of anger that James Lee Burke feels for the irresponsible destruction of the gulf environment by BP.  Similarly in “The Tin Roof Blowdown” the novel is framed by the devastation of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina and the sleaze and corruption that fed on this natural disaster.

There are many victims.  These stories are mainly about homicide, and the majority of the victims are poor, sometimes black, often female.  But the murders are not casual or the result of domestic violence.  Drug dealing, real estate development and oil are frequently behind the scenes.  James Lee Burke knows how, and why, the law operates in the States:  Unless a felon walks into a police station and confesses his crime, or unless he is caught in the commission of his crime, there are only two ways, from an evidentiary point of view, that the crime is solved and given prosecutable status. A detective either follows a chain of evidence to the suspect, or the detective begins with the suspect and, in retrograde fashion, follows the evidence back to the crime,” [Creole Belle, 130].  His stories won’t save lives, perhaps, but he does publicise the fates of those who cannot afford legal representation or who do not have the contacts or the education to skate and he exposes what he sees as the root causes of the disproportionate suffering of the underdog.

However, back to “Creole Belle.”  All the usual ingredients are there, with the addition of an evangelical preacher and an island stronghold which smacks of James Bond villainy.  There are the usual array of weapons (.22 autos, nine millimetre Berettas, Glocks, Walthers, .38s, .45s, cut-down shotguns, AR-15s, M16s, an AK-47 modified into a semi-auto and  a scoped ’03 Springfield rifle) although the final showdown involves liquid Drano, gallons of gasoline and a flare…..

Is it over the top?  Perhaps it is, especially as we read on page 431 that, “From this point on in my narrative, I cannot be entirely sure of any of the events that transpired….” And there are ninety more pages before the Epilogue.  I think again of the possibility that all this is a morphine dream, but then is that asking too many questions?  On page 521 we read, “Our wounds were severe, but we would survive them.  We were out of step and out of sync with the world and with ourselves…..”  James Lee Burke is acknowledging that there is something of the John Wayne about all this, that we are watching the final scene of a cowboy film, which we can watch again and again.  The difference is that they do not walk into the sunset, Dave and Clete walk away from the conflagration, the backs of their necks glowing with the heat.  It is the end, but the best stories go on for ever, either by repetition or by reappearing in a slightly different format.  The trick is to suspend the disbelief, to deplore the evil and to enjoy the good. 

The Epilogue of “Creole Belle” takes us to Key West, in Florida, touching its cap to Hemingway.  The Beach Boys “Help me Rhonda” plays as Clete delivers three children to safety from the rising tide, and Dave comments that, “That’s the way we dealt with the great issues of our time.  Clete protected the innocent and tried to do good deeds for people who had no voice, and I tried to care for my family and not brood upon the evil that men do.” And in conclusion he quotes Ecclesiastes: “one generation passeth away, and another cometh: but the earth abideth forever.”

The Bobbsey Twins from Homicide are forever!  Or to use one of James Lee Burke’s favourite words, it’s all copacetic!

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