1 February 2014

Light of the World

Dream Casting - James Lee Burke

You grow up, you grow old.  Who wants to do that?  Relax. Think cool thoughts and don't eat fried foods.  You know who said that?  Sachel Paige.  Everything is very copacetic. You got my word on that.

So says Clete Purcell, in response to Dave Robicheaux's question, Why don't you grow up? on page 79 of James Lee Burke's 20th Dave Robicheaux novel, published in this country in 2013.  

And we are back on the road again.  

For more about these two characters, and James Lee Burke, have a look at my previous piece on this blog http://www.richardpgibbs.org/2012/08/creole-belle.html but for now, join me in a game I like to play.  

Sometimes when I cannot sleep, I cast films of books in my head.  

Last night was one of those nights.  Perhaps my mind was disturbed by the content of James Lee Burke's latest book, or perhaps my daughter's unexplained absence in London on a foul January night kept me from sleep at 2.30am, but whatever it was, I spent an hour or more playing this game, casting Light of the World, using my agency's unlimited potential for calling on any actor, alive or dead.

The game is simple, but, like Desert Island Discs, there is the possibility of infinite permutations of similar ingredients. Louisiana Policeman Dave Robicheaux has already been portrayed on film by Tommy Lee Jones in In the Electric Mist (a sadly slow and flawed film by Bertrand Tavernier) and by Alec Baldwin in Heaven's Prisoners, but, as with many great books, the films are not as rich or rewarding as the text.  There are great films, and some that are better than the books they cook, but on the whole the mind is the best cinema.

To play the game, of course, you've got to know the book.  In this case we have Dave and his wife Molly and adopted daughter Alafair staying in western Montana (near Missoula, where James Lee Burke lives) with their old friend Albert Hollister, novelist and retired English professor and recently widowed. Dave's buddy, Clete Purcell, is staying in a guest cabin on the property, and he is soon joined by his daughter Gretchen Horowitz, who resurfaced from nowhere in Creole Belle, the previous novel. Gretchen had a very troubled upbringing and is now a (reformed) contract killer.

The essence of the plot is that an evil psychopath, Asa Surrette, is loose in the area.  He is supposed to have been killed in an accident in Kansas involving the police truck he was being carried in with a tanker load of petrol, but somehow he made it clear.  He is now on the track of the creative writing teacher (Albert) who dissed his story some years back and the young woman (Alafair) who interviewed him in prison and who wrote defamatory articles in the press about his twenty year killing career.

This is all complicated (enriched?) by the murder of 17 year old Angel Deer Heart Younger, the adopted granddaughter of Love Younger (yes, descended from Cole Younger, associate of Jesse James) who is one of the richest tycoons imaginable, and who seems to be developing shale fracking in Canada, into which Gretchen is researching for a documentary film. Love's son, Caspian, does not seem too upset by Angel's death, though his estranged wife, Felicity Louviere, who comes from New Orleans like Clete, is.  Add in a desultory sheriff (Elvis Bisbee) and his corrupt assistants (Bill Pepper and Jack Boyd) and part Blackfoot rodeo star Wyatt Dixon, and we have a very colourful mish-mash with lots of traded insults.

Get the picture?  It is classic Burke (even if, admittedly, it may not be the very best).  Trouble is not far away. Alafair is winged by an arrow while jogging.  Gretchen gets drugged and sexually abused by Bill Pepper.  Felicity falls for Clete. Bill Pepper gets his come-uppance, permanently.  Wyatt Dixon discovers who his father is and falls in love with Bill Pepper's sister who is then raped by Love Younger's gardeners led by Tony Zappa.  And so the story goes.  Greek tragedy, Medieval Mystery Play, Shakespearean drama, violent soft core noir.....  

I love it. And I think I love it because it is essentially a moral tale with familiar characters. Like the great Western films, it is the clash of good and bad, and though there are moments of doubt and pain, you know that good will triumph.

As James Lee Burke himself said, in an interview with Allen Pierleoni last August, Dave is the Everyman figure out of the medieval morality play and represents many of the values that Americans admire, (including) loyalty and empathy for the underdog. Washington Irving wrote in his journals, “A writer must establish a rapport with his reader, based on friendship and trust and familiarity.” In other words, audiences have to like the protagonist or they won’t read the books, and I’ve never forgotten that. There are reasons why everybody likes Huck Finn.

We like Dave. He is vulnerable, damaged, and yet he wants to support and protect his family from harm. He believes that evil must be combated, and in this novel, not unlike some of the others, the main evil character is really really bad. 

This book deals with the darkest character I’ve written about, a man who is truly wicked. If you’ve been around psychopaths — and I’ve met them — you walk away with a terrible feeling that the person possesses a darkness that goes beyond anything we understand. You finally just say a quiet prayer. walk away and remove that presence from your life. If it gets inside you, it will lead you into depression.

But having come across him here, he has to be destroyed, and so we read on, knowing that he will hurt people, and that he even smells evil.....

So, in my troubled sleeplessness, I review the novel, with its twists and false starts, its slightly heavy-handed biblical references, the extremities of behaviour and the coincidences of misfortune, and I review my stored film references for players to cast in this movie. And to make it more difficult, some of the wished-for stars may be unavailable, due to other commitments..... And so the pattern takes shape, and one thing leads to another.....

Here goes. My dream cast. 

Dave Robicheaux - Spencer Tracy

Clete Purcell - Ernest Borgnine

Perfect from The Wild Bunch

Molly Boyle - Shelley Winters

Albert Hollister - John Huston

One of the greatest grumpy old men

Gretchen Horowitz - Patricia Arquette

Perhaps more fragile than Gretchen, but gutsy in True Romance

Alafair Robicheaux - Penelope Cruz

The Hispanic touch, and a contrast to Gretchen

Love Younger - Humphrey Bogart

Caspian Younger - Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton

The shifty, spooky kind.  Unpredictable

Asa Surrette, aka Reverend Geta Noonen - James Gandolfini

The most difficult character for us to understand.  Needs real class.

Felicity Louviere - Janet Leigh

Just has to be freaky.  Psycho!

Sheriff Elvis Bisbee - Lee Marvin

Cantankerous, but tough, and essentially a good man.

Wyatt Dixon - Steve McQueen

Also hard to cast, as an incomplete and unfinished character.  Like Steve.

Jack Boyd - Warren Oates

Such a shame Warren always played baddies.  But he was so good at it!

Terry - Steve Buscemi

Just the man for a minor creep.

Detective Bill Pepper - George Kennedy

The kind of guy you would wrongly trust.

Bertha Phelps - Faye Dunaway

It's a start.  I would have the script written by Elmore Leonard and would negotiate with Sergio Leone to direct, Tonino Delli Colli to shoot, and Ennio Morricone to score. 

What more could you want?  When all is said, twenty books with the same characters is like a wonderful carpet - it wears thin in time, but you can still love its weave and colour and  I reckon this would be a damn fine movie.....

Fortunately, my daughter made it home, eventually, having missed the 3.32am train.....

And tonight I will be working on a new version of Great Expectations, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Pip and Marlene Dietrich as Miss Havisham.

The Light of the World - William Holman Hunt

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