Tuesday 24 July 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part II: Dark Underbellies

Author James Lee Burke on his Montana ranch. (Photo: Getty)

Read Part I of this series here.

"For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by ExxonMobil. Since Huey Long, demagoguery has been a given; misogyny and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues and self-congratulatory ignorance has become a source of pride." – James Lee Burke, Robicheaux

Since the 1987 publication of Neon Rain, Burke has mastered the technique of writing in the first person, remaining within the consciousness of his chief protagonist, enabling Dave to offer commentary on political, social, moral and philosophical issues. Robicheaux is set once again in the familiar setting of New Iberia along the bayou and opens with Dave seeing the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. He is in a dark psychic space as his wife, Molly, has died in a car accident. In his grief and rage, his sobriety cracks as he succumbs to his demons who "live in me like a snake that slowly swallows its prey." During an alcoholic binge, he fears he might have murdered the taxi driver who killed his wife but afterwards he cannot remember if it really happened. Worse, the investigation of the man's death is assigned to a dirty cop.

The plotlines of Robicheaux include a timely political component that focuses on a charismatic populist politician, Jimmy Nightingale, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a current national figure and recalls another ghost, that of the assassinated Louisiana governor and US Senator Huey Long. He is a real estate developer and owner of casinos whose celebrity has allowed him to enter politics. Like his flamboyant predecessors in Louisiana, Nightingale maintains affiliations with corrupt gangsters. The most prominent is Fat Tony Nemo, who has been deeply involved in porn, narcotics, politics, and films. Nightingale's quest is temporally stalled when he is accused of rape by the wife of the novelist Levon Broussard, whose Civil War fiction Nemo is determined to film. While Dave is under investigation, the semi-retired sheriff detective persuades his superior to allow him to look into the sexual assault allegation and the killings of several individuals by a hired assassin known as Smiley, who has at least one redeeming quality: he will not knowingly kill children.

Burke photographed for his 2009 novel Rain Gods. (Photo: Simon & Schuster)

In the meantime, Nightingale is shoring up political support. He is attempting to resurrect the career of an avowed white supremacist who may remind readers of David Duke. With Nightingale's demagogic facility for exploiting racism and fear with rabble-rousing speeches, he is not only interested in running for the Senate but has greater national aspirations. Near the end of the novel, when the climactic action plays out, Dave describes Nightingale's ecstatic audience and his own reactions to it:
The Cajun Dome was overflowing. Jimmy walked onto the stage ten minutes late in a white suit and cordovan boots and a dark blue shirt open at the collar, a short-brim pearl-gray Stetson gripped in his hand, as though he hadn’t had time to hang it. The crowd went wild. In front, some rose to their feet. Then the entire auditorium rose, stomping their feet and pounding the backs of the seats with such violence that the walls shook. I thought of Hitler’s arrivals, the deliberate delay, the trimotor silver-sided Junkers droning in the distance from afar and then appearing in the searchlights like a mythic winged creature descending from Olympus . . . 
Nightingale’s adherents wore baseball caps, T-shirts, and tennis shoes, and dresses made in Thailand. They were the bravest people on earth, bar none. They got incinerated in oil-well blowouts, crippled by tongs and chains on the drill floor, and hit by lighting laying pipe in a swamp in the middle of an electric storm, and they did it all without complaint. If you wanted to win a revolution, this was the bunch to get on your side. The same could be said if you wanted to throw the Constitution into the trash can.
In Burke's most recent novels, he supplements Dave's first-person rendering by inviting the reader to access the mind of his other major characters as well as minor figures. That approach works well in Light of the World as the reader is offered different perspectives other than Dave's. I think that in Robicheaux the multiple voices work equally well but at the cost of defying certain conventions of the crime novel. The protagonist is able to resolve the crimes and bring the malevolent perpetrators to justice, yet only the reader, not the investigators, becomes aware of the mastermind who hires the psychopathic "contract cleaner." As for justice being served, I can only say that it is stark departure from most crime novels. But then Burke has had a distinguished career in writing what might be more accurately described as philosophical meditations on crime – liberally sprinkled with exquisite lyrical passages alongside the harsh but often funny argot of the street – rather than traditional police procedurals, so he may be able to take liberties that might deter others.

When Burke finished writing Light of the World, he expected that it would be his last Robicheaux novel. He wrote three other books – he has turned out sixteen non-Robicheaux novels – but he was receiving so many requests for more about the decent but complex Iberian sheriff that he agreed to undertake two more: the first is Robicheaux and he is currently at work on his final installment of that extraordinary series. I wonder whether the mortality of Dave and Clete, which has been hinted at in his last two novels, will be addressed. In any case, the novel should be a fitting epitaph by a master craftsman. 


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