Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part I: Savagery and the Past

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because Burke powerfully explores the evil that men do when they cross a line.

Author James Lee Burke. (Photo: Facebook)

"I became a cop in order to deal with a black lesion that had been growing on my brain, if not my soul, since I was a child." – James Lee Burke, Light of the World 

It is unwise to pigeonhole a multiple-award-winning crime novelist like James Lee Burke as a genre writer. His detailed rendering of the Cajun culture, its food, music, and dialect, along with his gorgeous descriptions of the bayou in South Western Louisiana, particularly during rainstorms, is a distinguishing feature of the Robicheaux novels. Consider this lyrical passage from his most recent novel, Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, 2018): "The flying fish broke the bay's surface and sailed above the water like pink gilded winged creatures, in defiance of evolutionary probability." (Burke's descriptive prowess is also present in his twentieth Robicheaux creation, Light of the World [Simon & Schuster, 2013], which is set in the mountainous region near Missoula, Montana.) The Globe and Mailcritic, Margaret Cannon, offers high praise to Burke by comparing him to William Faulkner: his account of the bayous of Louisiana is similar to "what Faulkner did for backwoods Mississippi." Not surprisingly, Burke considers Faulkner, particularly his The Sound and the Fury, to be a major influence.

Burke's influence has extended beyond the crime novel to the larger culture. Like some of the best crime novelists, Burke uses the procedural as a vehicle for an overlay of political and social commentary. The 2005 Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, which submerged large areas of the poorest parts of New Orleans and exposed scandalous government neglect, even before the tidal surge hit with cuts in federal aid, was the subject of The Tin Roof Blowdown. The novel is comparable to the mammoth Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke, and the HBO David Simon series, Treme, for their portrayals of a community after the veneer of civilized society is stripped away and we find out what people are really like. The New York Times reviewer, Marilyn Stasio, declared that Burke's was the "definitive" crime novel about Katrina.

Even in Burke's Robicheaux, in which the plot has nothing to do with Katrina, he includes two passages on it, one reportage and one commentary. I think the latter needs to be quoted at length to appreciate the quality of his writing and the depth of his insight: 

"There is a purity in catastrophe. We see firsthand the nature of human courage and human frailty, the destructive and arbitrary power of the elements, the breakdown of social restraint and our mechanical inventions and the savagery that hide in the collective unconscious. An emergency room lit only by flashlights and filled with the moans of the dying and feet sloshing in water became a medieval scene no different than one penned by Victor Hugo."

Burke at 80. (Photo: Kent Wilson)

Savagery and the past  both personal and the region's collective history  are touchstones for Burke's flawed but sympathetic protagonist, Dave Robicheaux. Violence and rage have shadowed much of Dave's life. His mother abandoned him when he was a boy and he grew up hating the man who ruined his mother's life. Both his parents died under violent circumstances. His second wife, Annie, was murdered in her bed by professional hit men. He has long fought a battle against his alcohol addiction, which was exacerbated by serving and being injured in Vietnam, and alcohol remains a powerful temptation. Throughout his adult life, he has been subject to recurring bouts of depression and rage. These back stories are threaded throughout the Robicheaux novels, sometimes too frequently, so that readers familiar with the series may be tempted to skip passages, even pages, that dwell too much on them.

At the same time, Dave is a man of courage, conscience and compassion, a good husband and father to his adopted daughter, Alafair. He has been loyal to Clete Purcel, his longtime friend and former homicide partner, with whom he roams the slimy underbelly of New Orleans portrayed in Burke's first Robicheaux novel, The Neon Rain. They both returned to Iberia, Dave as a sheriff investigator and Clete as a private investigator. They have much in common as they struggle in different ways to exorcise their own personal demons. Both experienced or witnessed violence in their childhoods, served in Vietnam, and have had a penchant for violence and alcohol but Dave continually supports his friend because, as Robicheaux remarks in Creole Belle, "Clete protected the innocent and tried to do good deeds for people who had no voice." 

Dave is equally attuned to an invisible realm that lies beyond the material world. In Light of the World, he reminds us that “I have always loved and welcomed the rain, even though sometimes the spirits of the dead visit me inside it.” These spirits include his personal dead, among them Annie in Black Cherry Blues and the ghosts of the Confederate soldiers, a prominent motif In the Electric Mist with Confederate DeadLight of the World is set entirely in Montana (now Burke's home). Dave has traveled there to visit a friend, a former professor and currently an environmental activist. He is accompanied by his wife Molly, Alafair, Clete Purcel, and the latter's recently discovered daughter, a former contract killer, Gretchen Horowitz, now reinventing herself as a documentary filmmaker. There they encounter the soulless nadir of humanity embodied in the presence and toxic smell of Asa Surrette (a toxicity often associated with the devil). He is a depraved serial killer and sexual sadist who managed to escape death from a prison bus accident and has arrived in Montana to wreak revenge on Alafair for a perceived slight: a lawyer and novelist, Alafair once interviewed him for a true crime book years ago in a Kansas prison but was so repulsed by him that she wrote an unsympathetic short piece that argued that he should die for his crimes. Surrette could be the psychic twin of the terrifying Ed Kemper, a mass killer in the compelling Netflix series, Mindhunter, in which FBI officers interview serial killers in an attempt to profile their psyches.

Burke on his Montana ranch. (Photo: Steve Duin)

Perhaps more than any of his previous Robicheaux novels, Light of the World is a meditation on human and corporate evil. The literally reeking Surrette is abetted in his heinous crimes by a powerful family raping the environment for profit. The patriarch of this clan operates so far outside the boundaries of normal society, even as he rationalizes his actions, that he becomes indifferent to the welfare of others, including his own family. His contempt is passed on to his unloved and thuggish son, whose actions encourage those who work for him, including some local cops, into believing they can act without fear of reprisal.

Given Dave's family history and his history as a veteran detective and a sheriff, the origins of evil haunt him: "Were some people made different in the womb, born without a conscience, intent on destroying everything that is good in the world? Or could a black wind blow the weather vane in the wrong direction for any of us, and reshape our lives and turn us into people we no longer recognize?" As befitting a former professor, Burke draws upon a plethora of cultural allusions to assist Dave in his quest to understand the nature of evil in others and within himself, ranging from Shakespeare, Freud, Milton and William Blake to The Sopranos

I thought the most apt reference was to a short story, "Young Goodman Brown," by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in seventeenth-century New England, the story narrates the journey of a man into the forest one night during which he loses his faith in the goodness of others to the extent that he becomes disillusioned and embittered for the rest of his life. Dave, who is aware that a "succubus has lived inside me most of my life," nonetheless has the insight to perceive the story as a cautionary warning to recognize that goodness does lie within his family and friends and that he must marshal the necessary resources to confront the greater evil that threatens them. He can be introspective but he is also a man of action who will and does kill in defense of a greater good. Light of the World may be his most harrowing study of human evil. 

2 comments: