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Posted: February 28, 2021

A Private Cathedral is vintage James Lee Burke

Book Review

By Derryll White

Burke, James Lee (2020).  A Private Cathedral

“There’s enough evil in the human heart to incinerate the earth.” – Father Julian

This novel is vintage James Lee Burke, unbelievably rising to a new level of artistry if that is possible. He is the strongest novelist America has to offer right now, but when he puts William Blake in a bar fight he exceeds even my expectations. Burke walks the old roads, the Route 66 of the soul back before America went to hell.  His voice sings, picking up rhythm from the bayou and a strong bass beat from his Texas time. Although his writing has that moss-shrouded Louisiana tranquility it always picks up echoes of the lonely dark pine needle-covered roads through the swamp, the asshole tightening tremors of terror in the unknown night.

Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell are on another quest. Burke always evokes for me memories of Malory, Cervantes and Kerouac.  The Bobbsey Twins from homicide are again on the road through darkest America. I love Dave Roobicheaux. PTSD – who knows?  We all do our time, hard.  I like that Dave softens his with the toughest questions of Good and Evil, with the views of Dante and Blake and Muddy Waters.  We all need touchstones.

Reading James Lee Burke is akin to travelling down a dark shaded lane into your own younger life. The memories may not be the same but the journey is haunting, evoking dark patterns on the light fade of one’s own youth. There are bogeymen in that alley, crouched just south of the wistfully remembered family dog.  Burke always takes the reader on a wild personal ride.

Forget the freeways of life today. The author is old enough to know that memory is a two-lane highway with lots of curves. At night the white line flickers, everything a passing lane – safe or not. Burke can only put the hammer down and careen off the obstacles, entranced by the awesome beauty memory serves up. When you’re lucky, and older, life is just such a ride.


“Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy.” – Stonewall Jackson

Excerpts from the novel:

HUMAN CONDITION – …I wondered which building housed the electric chair, called Old Sparky by people who thought shaving the hair off a human being and strapping him to a chair and affixing a metal cap to his scalp and frying him alive was the stuff of humor.  I also wondered again of the entirety of our species descended from the same antediluvian soup.  My guess is that our origins are far more diverse; I also believe that the truth would terrify most of us.  What if we had to accept the fact that we pass on the seed of the lizard in our most loving and romantic moments?  That the scales of the serpent are at the corners of our eyes, that bloodlust can have its first awakening when the infant’s mouth finds the mother’s nipple?

LIFE – People of color have a saying: If you’re black on Saturday night, you’ll never want to be white again.

DEATH – But on this day I felt there was a hole in my life I would never fill, an ache that had no source.  Death is not a transitory or incremental presence.  It swallows you whole.

SUMMING IT UP – I said good night and ran through the rain to my unmarked car just as lightning leaped through the clouds and lit up the entire neighborhood.  The tiny boxlike houses trembled like a cardboard replica of Levittown, then the darkness folded over them.  It was one of those rare moments when the ephemerality of the human condition becomes inescapable and you want to smash your watch and shed your mortal fastenings and embrace the rain and the wind and rise into the storm and become one with its destructive magnificence

PROBLEMS – “You think he’s actually an evil spirit?”

“I prefer not to,” he replied.


“Superstition has its origins in fear.  Ultimately, all our problems have their origins in fear.”

TODAY – “You know what Swamp Pop is?” I said.

“No,” she answered.

“It’s called the New Orleans Sound.  The melody tinkles like crystal.  Ernie Suarez and Warren Storm from Lafayette had a lot to do with it.  Fats Domino and Guitar Slim, too.  It’s like listening to ‘Jolie Blon.’  You know it’s about a lost love of some kind, something you can’t tell other people about.”

“So why isn’t it still around?”

“It takes the listener too deep inside himself.”

“That’s a strange thing to say.”

“Why do you think people live on cell phones?  It’s because they don’t want to live with their own thoughts.”

PERMISSION – But the real mystery for me is not in the unseen but in the one at our fingertips: How is it we can do so much harm to one another as long as we are provided sanction?  How is it we make marionettes of ourselves and give all power to those who have never heard a shot fired in anger or had even a glimpse of life at the bottom of the food chain?

WOMEN – If you live long enough, you eventually learn that almost every aspect of the universe is a mystery, no more understandable by the scientist than by the metaphysicians.  And the greatest mystery in creation is the spiritual and healing transformation of a woman when she gives herself to you.  It’s a gift you cannot repay, a memory that never dies.

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.

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