Sunday, November 14, 2010

James Lee Burke and Swan Peak, a Postscript

As I said in my review of Swan Peak, I like James Lee Burke's Robicheaux novels, well enough to have read sixteen of them -- I missed Pegasus Descending  (2006) and haven't yet bought his newest one The Glass Rainbow (2010) -- yet at the same time, I've found them disturbing and, especially in Swan Peak downright annoying.

The disturbing part has to do with the violence done against defenseless people by mafia mobsters, crooked politicians and wealthy elites who treat poor folks and African Americans with brutal contempt. New Orleans and Louisiana have a history of mafia control, deplorable race relations, and wonderful music and cuisine. Fascinating places that, having read the  Robicheaux novels, I've left off my travel itinerary.

The annoying part has to do with Cletus (Clete) Purcell, Robicheaux's long time partner and friend. Purcell is loyal, haunted by his upbringing and his combat experiences in Nam, quick-tempered, violent, needy, vulnerable and alcoholic. He gets into and out of jams, falls in lust with unlikely people like the FBI agent in Swan Peak, and deals with his emotional pain and loneliness by hammering back another drink with a beer chaser. Life around the poor sod just is not very pleasant, and isn't going to be as long as he continues drinking.

Clete Purcell is a certified, died-in-the-wool alcoholic who isn't going to change and isn't interested in Dave's urging him to quit drinking (alcoholics call it interfering). Watching him is like watching an out-of-control eighteen wheeler careening down a mountain road with a child at the wheel. You know he's going to crash but you don't know just when, and hope to Hell no one's in the way when he does.

What I know about alcoholics, from working with them for many years and from having spent twelve years as a practicing alcoholic myself, is that being in a relationship with one, be it as friend, lover or spouse, can be and usually is a painful experience. And Clete Purcell is a classic alcoholic. What makes matters worse is that Dave got sober several novels ago, attends AA, is happily married to Molly, and tries to help his buddy. 

There are few things as annoying to a still practicing alcoholic than having his old drinking buddy get sober because "sober" means change, Clete doesn't know how to deal with the change, and the level of discomfort (and Clete's epic loneliness) continue to rise until Clete disappears over the hill with still another woman who will "rescue" him. Which Dave and Molly know will have the same outcome as all the others have done ... and Clete will continue the same dance he has danced since the early days.

What happens with Clete in The Glass Rainbow? I won't know until I read it. At least I now know why I got so bloody annoyed with both him and Dave, and have from the beginning. Sober, Clete's sort of a lovable old cuss.

James Lee Burke also has a heart for the working stiff, the downtrodden and forgotten, and a deep sense of social justice. I like that in a writer.

The Dave Robicheaux novels are:

  1. The Neon Rain (1987)
  2. Heaven's Prisoners (1988)
  3. Black Cherry Blues (1989)
  4. A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
  5. A Stained White Radiance (1992)
  6. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)
  7. Dixie City Jam (1994)
  8. Burning Angel (1995)
  9. Cadillac Jukebox (1996)
  10. Sunset Limited (1998)
  11. Purple Cane Road (2000)
  12. Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002)
  13. Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003)
  14. Crusader's Cross (2005)
  15. Pegasus Descending (2006)
  16. The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007)
  17. Swan Peak (2008)
  18. The Glass Rainbow (2010)
Burke has also written four Billy Bob Holland novels -- Cimarron Rose (1997), Heartwood (1999), Bitterroot (2001) and In the Moon of Red Ponies (2004); two Hackberry Holland novels -- Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971) and Rain Gods (2009); five other novels -- Half of Paradise (1965), Two for Texas (1982), The Lost Get-Back Boogie (1986), To The Bright and Shining Sun, (1995), and White Doves at Morning (2002); and two short story anthologies -- The Convict (1985) and Jesus Out to Sea (2007).

A bit of trivia about James Lee Burke is that he has staying power. He was born on December 5, 1936. Shows that when you're good, you can last a long while.

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