Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Living inside a maelstrom haunted by ghosts

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite writers. His prose is eloquent, quotable, and graphic. He views the world from the perspective of the marginalized and maimed and forgotten, some of whom struggle to escape an ugly karma and live lives that are happy and relatively tranquil. Some of them make it, some of them don't, and some of them are left with questions that are never really answered.

In this book, and in many others he has written, the protagonists are two friends, New Iberia, Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and his best friend and compatriot Clete (Cletus) Purcel, ex-New Orleans cop, private investigator, decorated Vietnam veteran and alcoholic. I like both of these men ... and they are not easy men to like because of the ghosts that haunt them both, ghosts of their upbringing and Vietnam and alcohol. 

Over the past several novels, Dave has been working on getting his act together -- he has quit drinking, joined AA, and married Molly, a wonderful ex-nun who loves him and refuses to get enmeshed in his torments. Clete is like watching a runaway eighteen wheeler careening down a mountain highway with bad brakes and a lunatic at the wheel. You know there's an awful crash waiting somewhere, but you don't know just where. The guy has an amazing ability to right himself, but you know he's ultimately going off a cliff if he doesn't stop drinking. 

Most of the Dave Robicheaux novels take place in Louisiana. This one takes place in Montana, where Dave and Molly have gone on a fishing vacation, taking Clete along to give him a break,.

"Clete Purcel had heard of people who sleep without dreaming, but either because of the era and neighborhood in which he had grown up, or the later experiences that had come to define his life, he could not think of sleep as anything other than an uncontrolled descent into a basement where the gargoyles turned somersaults like circus midgets .. His dreams clung to his skin like cobweb and followed him into the day... But on this particular morning Clete was determined to leave his past in the past and live in the sunlight from dawn until nightfall and then sleep the sleep of the dead."

But for Clete, there are no breaks, and trouble finds him on the banks of a pristine river, fishing when two men in a bright red diesel extended cab truck pull up and spoil the idyllic scene. It isn't surprising. From there events descend into the dark regions of the soul where hobgoblins dwell and hurting people struggle to live fulfilling lives and try to stay out of the way of greedy, wealthy elites who use evil as a tool to possess more. "When people talk about class war," Dave muses, "they're dead wrong. The war was never between the classes. It was between the have-nots and the have-nots. The people on the hill watched it from afar when they watched it at all." Which, I'd say, is pretty close to the truth.

I found Swan Peak a hypnotic read. It's plot is many-layered, its mood dark and heavy, with glimmers of hope for some of the hopeless characters that one least expects will make it out of the maelstrom that, Burke muses, in which we all live, "an era that is so intense and fierce in its inception ans denouement that it can only be seen correctly inside the mind of a deity."

Yet, in spite of all this, the story ends on a not of hope. Looking at fingerling salmon in a cold stream, Dave knows that when spring comes, the adult salmon will work their way into the main stream and on down to the sea. "All of these things will happen of their own accord, without my doing anything about them, and for some strange reason, I take great comfort in that fact."

A fine novel, if not, like life, always a pleasant one. 

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