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Posted: May 3, 2020

Always an awesome, amazing journey with James Lee Burke

Book Review

By Derryll White

Burke, James Lee (2018).  Robicheaux.

“You deal with your own snakes or you don’t, man.  Sometimes you’re the only cat in the cathedral.  Ain’t nobody else can do it for you.”    — James Lee Burke

No writer I have read does despair better than James Lee Burke.  It is personal, and visceral, and I believe him implicitly.  He takes my hand, walks me into a shuttered room and turns off all the lights.  As explicit as his descriptions get, I cannot understand how Burke has Dave Robicheaux survive his overwhelming depression and loneliness.

My guess is that Robicheaux’s deep roots in Southern history, his innate understanding of the soul of the Creole people he cohabits with in rural Louisiana, are the answers. But that still doesn’t get me to the crux of the beauty that lifts Robicheaux out of the haze of injustice, pain and loss each time he descends into his personal Hades. Always an awesome, amazing journey.

There is a beautiful rhythm to this novel.  The human energy swells, through anger or love, to be replaced by the complex fact of Louisiana – its despotic history, lush vegetation and remarkable poor (again beautiful in Burke’s eyes). This rhythm is alluring, enchanting, a poetry of musical prose. Through it all, James Lee Burke continues to pursue his unrelenting quest for a meaning of self.

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Excerpts from the novel:

TRUTHS – Like many my age, I believe people in groups are to be feared and that arguing with others is folly and the knowledge of one generation cannot be passes down to the next.  Those may seem cynical sentiments, but there are certain truths you keep inside you and do not defend lest your cheapen and then lose them altogether.  Those truths that have less to do with the dead than the awareness that we are no different from them, that they are still with us and we are still with them, and there is no afterlife but only one life, a continuum in which all time occurs at once, like a dream inside the mind of God.

LOUISIANA – Yes, Louisiana has produced some statesmen and stateswomen, but they are the exception and not the norm.  For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by Exxon Mobile.  Since Huey Long, demagoguery has been a given; misogyny and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues, and self-congratulatory ignorance has become a source of pride.

COPS – Probably one third of cops are dedicated to the job; one third eat too many doughnuts; and one third are people who should not be given power over others.  Female detectives do not show off their cleavage.  Many cops carry a drop or a throw-down.  Cops plant evidence and lie on the stand.  In our midst are sadists and racists who taint the rest of us.  And the greatest contributor to solving crimes is not the lab but the informant, usually someone who skipped toilet training and couldn’t make a peanut butter sandwich with a diagram.

NEW ORLEANS – If anyone tells you he’s from New Orleans and doesn’t drink, he’s probably not from New Orleans.  Louisiana is not a state; it’s an outdoor mental asylum in misogamy which millions of people stay bombed most of their lives.  That’s not an exaggeration.  Cirrhosis is a family heirloom.

AMERICA – Clete never spoke to others of the private universe in which he lived; nor did he share his belief that the world was mad, that most politicians were liars who served the interests of corporations, that populists were con artists, and that the poor were kept poor and uneducated as long as possible.

– 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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