by Peter Byrne
Burke, James Lee: The Tin Roof Blowdown, Orion Books, London, 2007, ISBN 978 0 7528 8916 0, 373 pages; Jesus Out To Sea And Other Stories, Orion Books, London, 2008, ISBN 978 0 7528 8852 1, 240 pages.
(Swans - June 16, 2008) 9/11 didn't knock the wind out of novelists. It was a heaven-sent fillip for clapped-out careers. The calamity opened a door for writers just as it did for the Bush administration. Some one like Jay McInery watched events from his window and saw a way to rise like Lazarus off the slab of glossy Manhattan highlife. Surely the gravity of that day would mature the brat pack characters of his novel, Brightness Falling. He was wrong. In The Good Life they remained, despite the noxious dust, just as trivial, only older.
In Windows on the World, a Frenchman, Frédéric Beigbeder made much of method. He seated a character in the restaurant atop the North Tower for the 105 minutes before you-know-what. Each minute -- hear this -- has a brief, but too long chapter of its own. The 106th ends all that and not with a whimper. Interesting? The author himself got tired of the idea and settled down to some nifty self-denigration, winding up with a subject closer to his heart, Hugh Hefner.
After Everything is Illuminated nothing was left to spotlight in a second novel for Jonathan Safran Foer. But after 9/11 he put his money on a depressed 11-year-old intellectual called Oskar whose father went down with the World Trade Center. The kid wanders the city looking for a mysterious lock he inherited a key for. He wants to unlock, lock up or maybe only lock this lock. It keeps him moving, but alas can't stop his cute monologue unspooling. The novel is a squib without the title's bang: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Not only tyro novelists espied good career moves in catastrophe. John Updike hitched on his cart of oozy words. Scant of material for a long spell, he'd taken his sex show to Brazil, New England in 2025 (copulation is still around), and even to Elsinore to check out Hamlet's mother in the sack. Then, thanks to the prowess of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he could set The Terrorist in New Jersey. A half-Arab teenage virgin gorging on the Koran is turned off sex and inspired to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel. Anything can happen post 9/11. That red letter day may have changed everything as the bullhorns insist, but certainly not the literary game.
Don DeLillo hit a highpoint with Underworld but took a tumble with Cosmopolis and definitely fell flat with Falling Man his post thingamabob. "Small and unsatisfying and inadequate," said The New York Times. Is it rash to feel that these and a raft of other similarly inspired fictions should have been carted off with the toxic rubble? For all the clarity they delivered, they might as well have served as landfill.
We could line the disposal facility with remnants of the novelist Martin Amis's crashed The Second Plane. Harrumphing the everything-is-changed line, he claims that 9/11 reduced his colleagues' works in progress "overnight to a blue streak of autistic babble." No, it has to be objected, quite the contrary, those blocked scribblers finally found something to put on their blank page. The 2,973 deaths threw them, like Amis, a lifeline. He'd long since used up London, romped distractedly through the Holocaust, proved Stalin a nasty fellow, discovered the Cold War once it was over, and stood ready at his good London address to take on Islam or rather, as they say in leafy Hampstead, Islamofascism.
Whence, then, will enlightenment by the book come? From the crime novel and straight talk direct from New Orleans' ground zero. Only detective Dave Robicheaux, recurring character in sixteen of James Lee Burke's novels, has the gall to speak his anger raw. His city was left unprepared and vulnerable, set up for a hard hit by nature, and then abandoned by the powers that be. The bullhorns kept quiet down on the Gulf where black people lived and Washington's war couldn't be promoted.
Burke and his tense alter ego have earned the right to be plenty mad. For years they made us see, smell, and feel with our fingertips their beloved home patch. Sometimes the style and vegetation got so lush we had to close the book a moment and stare out at our blank gray courtyards. But the depiction of place overrode any distaste at the worn furniture in the serial detective's life: His cartoonish sidekick, his cliff-hanging family, his bad dreams from a boozy past. Like Burke, Dave Robicheaux is a liberal Catholic with sin and redemption on his mind. Unbelievable satanic figures pop up in his books in the service of the plot. The ever present New Orleans' Mafiosi could be out of another decade or even from 1987 and the first novel in the series. There's a lot of stale cops-and- robbers' stuff, however well grounded the grasp of police procedure and lowlife vocabulary might be.
That "Louisiana is not a state, it's a Third World country" is something that Burke and his stand-in, both natives, don't have to be told. They know all about the new South but still see a lot of the old one. They never pussyfoot around racist malevolence, but refuse to overlook any nuance of how real people act, white or black. There are plenty of nasty characters in Burke and Dave's hometown of New Iberia. In the air over Bayou Teche, you smell the fish spawn along with the wild spearmint.
The Tin Roof Blowdown has some formulaic stretches and description that can flow as mechanically as from a faucet. The plot is tied up too neatly as if Burke leaned over absentmindedly and put a bow in his shoelace. But there are also indelible pictures of people left in the worst kind of desperation -- the calm sort, when they know no help is coming. The reader realizes then that he will never forget what Katrina and not caring did to New Orleans.
Dave, waking from his regular nightmares of Vietnam horror, tells us on Page 2 that he hoped after that war he would "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."
Dave drives in a police caravan from untouched New Iberia to New Orleans on August 29, 2005. What Burke has him see in Chapter 6 belongs in an anthology of searing depictions of disaster and deserves to be quoted at length. Here is his cool conclusion that makes us forget the smaller crimes and criminals of the story:
The levees burst because they were structurally weak and had only a marginal chance of surviving a category 3 storm, much less one of category 5 strength. Every state emergency official knew this. The Army Corps of Engineers knew this. The National Hurricane Center in Miami knew this. But apparently the United States Congress and the current administration in Washington, D.C., did not, since they had dramatically cut funding for repair of the levee system only a few months earlier. (Page 32)
The eleven stories collected in Jesus Out To Sea And Other Stories appeared in periodicals between 1992 and 2006. They evoke the author's experience and views undistorted by the demands of crime fiction. His personal world remains violent. The four stories of childhood are full of bullying, fear and parents plucked away by death. The time is WWII. Burke's ambience is small town and working class. In one story set in 1957 he ventures out on a Gulf oilrig to consider the emotional give and take between workers. Still in the 1950s, he does a bumpy tour with Texas rock and roll performers. Twice Burke tells of decent old men, lettered and gentle, brought up against a thuggish behavior fast infecting society. The Village recounts a CIA engineered atrocity against an insubordinate hamlet in South America.
But it's in Mist that Burke gathers all his present concerns. Lisa, who is black, has lost her husband, a National Guard reservist, "nor't of Baghdad." She was pulled out of the submerged Lower Ninth Ward by helicopter but didn't manage to save her baby. Evacuated to the inferno of the Superdome and then to a shelter, she eventually came back to a flattened Ninth Ward, herself crushed by trauma. Not having been legally married, she receives no help from the Army. A Cajun woman, former addict and prostitute, tries to help Lisa who has fallen into the hands of a pimp drug dealer. He soon has Lisa on drugs and working for him. The Cajun friend also relapses. The two women, finding no solid support, cling to each other as they go down to defeat.
The title story Jesus Out To Sea takes us through a rough New Orleans childhood and the friendship of three boys only to come suddenly up against the author's anger. A man who was left adrift remarks bitterly, "Nobody ever bothered to explain why nobody came for us." The story is heavy with nostalgia for the city that was, but doesn't ignore its dark side. Crack cocaine came to the projects in the eighties and reduced the young to zombies with 9mm automatics. Reagan cut Federal Aid by half and the city's murder rate became the highest in the country. "This is the big sleazy. It's Guatemala." Again Burke connects Vietnam service and the atrocities there with America's continuing violence and the neglect that left the people of New Orleans to their fate.
In the Dave Robicheaux novels the final pages usually tidy away one story and leave Burke's desk ready for the next. But not this time. That the bad guys have been put away for a while seems like small beer beside the tragedy of the Gulf. The New Orleans that Dave and his buddy Cletus knew is no more and won't ever be coming back. It's been annihilated with their childhood and all their manly endeavors. That's not only hard on Burke the novelist, but on Burke the man. He has always been deeply identified with his character: The torn body and nightmare of Vietnam, the subsequent alcoholism, the death of a wife, the constant wash of crime over him sustained only by what he can muster of human decency.
Jesus Out To Sea And Other Stories took Burke's gaze beyond crime fiction and let him observe life and the ravaged Gulf from other angles. The Tin Roof Blowdown can be said to fail in that it applies the rules of the genre without conviction. The novel lets rage about the destruction of New Orleans overshadow the police game of neutralizing criminals. But, on the other hand, it can be considered a success because of doing just that.
Can any representation of 9/ll square up to James Lee Burke's picture of hurricane Katrina's aftermath? Only jokey graphic art offers competition. See Art Spiegelman's In The Shadow of No Towers. He shows his distraught self speaking: "Doomed! Doomed to drag this damned albatross around my neck, and compulsively retell the calamities of September 11th to anyone who'll still listen!..."
The albatross that looks like a parrot is roped to him. From under a red, white, and blue hat, it says: "Everything's changed! Awk!" Spiegelman says he can't forget the sky falling. The bird says, "Go out and shop! Awk." Spiegelman elaborates on what he witnessed. The albatross intones the new patriotism: "Be afraid!"
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