A Dave Robicheaux book from James Lee Burke tends to have a fairly predictable plot – someone does evil things, often involving threats to Dave’s womenfolk; Dave responds with the help of Clete Purcell, often with violence; and there is a lot of agonising over what is the right thing to do, often unresolved. This book is no different, on the face of it, but given the context – Hurricane Katrina and the desolation it caused, even more so the weaknesses of the human spirit seen in the response to the misery – and especially given the wonderful luminous writing of James Lee Burke, it is new, and it is even more powerful than its predecessors.
Burke’s use of words and the rhythms of the language he puts on the page is pure poetry, and make for compelling reading. Some examples:
Fear was a gray balloon that floated from place to place, object to object, and each time he tried to confront it, it moved someplace else, transforming the most innocuous of situations into dilemmas that he would never confess to anyone else, lest they know him for the frightened man he was.
The world has become an unforgiving prison where the images from a mistaken moment have not disappeared with sleep and instead pursue you wherever you go.
In Dave Robicheaux’ Louisiana, everyone is special, everyone has a story, everyone has come to the place in the world that they now occupy through a series of decisions in which they were not necessarily a willing participant, but the consequences of which they must now confront. What Burke succeeds in doing is to illustrate the sheer immensity of the impact of Katrina by focusing on the impact it had on the lives of several people when their intersecting stories come together at a point in place and time, and the tragedies and violence, but also the redemption, that unfold as a result.
The key stories are those of an insurance man, Otis Baylor, and his daughter; Bertrand Melancon, a young black “street puke” who had been involved in the rape of the daughter, the death of a priest, and the looting of something valuable from the flooded house of a mob boss. And of course there is Dave Robicheaux, former New Orleans cop, recovering alcoholic, now working for the New Iberia Sheriff. The violence and misery of the events they are involved brings forth a figure of evil, Ronald Bledsoe, who threatens Alafair, Dave’s daughter and is determined to get his hands on the valuables that Bertrand has hidden. Dave continues his lifetime journey through the underworld of crime and pain, trying to do good, often succeeding, but dependent on the goodwill of Sheriff Helen Soileau, his boss, and the dubious assistance of Clete Purcell, his friend.
The fight between good and evil takes place between and within the characters, but there is another force that looms large – the ineradicable fact of the failure of much of the US government to recognise and address the extent of the tragedy and its impact on the people of New Orleans, and the futility and cruelty of those who preyed on their neighbours. Against this Burke recognises the individuals and groups who, like the US Coastguard, toiled unceasingly to try to save lives and restore some faith in the human spirit. In introducing the story, Dave Robicheaux recalls the tragedy of Vitenam and says:
When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.
But that was before Katrina. That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.
This is the Dave Robicheaux novel you must read.
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke, published by Phoenix (2008, paperback), ISBN: 978-0-7538-2316-3
See the Wikipedia entry for James Lee Burke, including bibliography.
Listen to a podcast of Kim Hill’s 5 July 2008 Radio NZ interview with James Lee Burke.