Friday, 12 September 2008

The Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke

G'day, it's your mate Jack Russell here again. Well I just got back from seeing the quack. Had me general checkup as well as the blokes special one in the trouser department. You know what that involves and if you're getting to be a codger like me, well you make sure you get one too. And there's no need to feel embarrassed or anything. The quack takes it in his stride because they're trained for it, and they cop a few quid as well. After all it's nothing compared to what the missus has to put up with. And it might mean you'll get a few more years of fishing you hadn't counted on, so that's a bonus. Here is some more information if you're interested.

Now listen, this bloke James Lee Burke is the dinkum oil and you can take my word on it. Why don't I start by quoting a few reviews.

"He writes explosively about crime and elegaically about America. And he does so with style and passion enough to turn admirers into addicts. Burke is the only author guaranteed to make me bolt meals and lose sleep. No one else in the business is writing fiction like this." Literary Review

"No one handles complex plots better than Burke; no one is better at creating characters, good, bad or evil and above all no one writes with such a sensuous appreciation of life, with so poetic yet meticulous observation of detail." London Evening Standard.

He's a yank writer but don't let that stop you because he's one of the best. That reminds me of the visiting Texan that Granddad Russel was taking for a ride around the property one day.
"So how big exactly is this here spread of yours Mr Russell?" says Tex.
"Well you'd have to ride all day to get to the boundary", says Pa.
"Hell" says the big feller, "On my spread I could ride all day and never reach the boundary".
"Yeah" says Pa, "I had a horse like that once".

Anyway back to the author review. The setting is Louisiana so the tucker is Cajun, and if you haven't tried it, you should get the Missus to cook some up. Or better still give it a go yourself because it's easy to cook - being based on barbecuing, smoking, grilling and one pot stews. All the stuff a bloke can cook, and the way JLB describes it, will have you licking your lips for some. Ingredients like fried oysters and shrimp in Poor boy sandwiches, that's what the yanks call prawns as you may know. As well as wild caught trout and redfish and hunted game, and catfish which they say can be an acquired taste, it's all stuff a bloke would recognise and know how to handle. Just skin 'em or scale 'em, gut 'em, chuck on some seasoning and on the barbie or in the smoker they go, no worries.

Now if you really get into these books you'll want to listen to some Cajun music as well and good stuff it is too. In fact Jolie Blon's Bounce illustrated here in one such. You might remember the live version by the Sir Douglas Quintet, an innovative late 60s band that incorporated Tex-Mex and Cajun styles into rock music, the Mendocino album is here in the shed somewhere, well worth a listen.

But it's not just tucker because the way JLB describes the swamps, the insects, the heat, the sunsets and sunrises, the smells of mud and rotting vegetation, the behaviour of fish and animals, there's fishing action too - you feel like you're right there and once that happens, well you're really reading. In fact the setting is so powerful in these stories that it becomes like another character that controls all others, bit like the drought does to us farmers and graziers.

Now the protagonist, that's the hero, is a feller name of Dave Robicheaux , he's a French Cajun and they're a people with a fascinating history. He's also a recovering alcoholic, a police detective, and a man with his own inner demons, and we've all had them at one time or another. And he's a bloke for whom the ghosts of the past are always present, which is a pretty accurate way of looking at life I reckon. Like when I'm replacing some old eaten out timber fence posts that granddad Russell split with his own hands and the sweat of his brow, or come across the lonely grave of some old fossiker out in the bush and it gives a feller pause to think.

Anyway Dave writes in the first person and you know how I like that in a book. But JLB has a way of overcoming the limitations of this style by slipping in linking passages of third person narrative that are so natural you don't even realise that it's not Dave talking. And if you're a student of language, well the dialogue is pure gold. And he can write a sentence too. But it's time I stopped rabbiting on and we hear from the man himself. This is from the opening of Jolie Blon's Bounce where he first meets Legion, his nemesis in several stories.

"Farther down Main were Hopkins and Railroad Avenues, like ancil­lary conduits into part of the town's history and geography that people did not talk about publicly. When I went to the icehouse on Saturday af­ternoons with my father, I would look furtively down Railroad at the rows of paintless cribs on each side of the train tracks and at the blowsy women who sat on the stoops, hung over, their knees apart under their loose cotton dresses, perhaps dipping beer out of a bucket two Negro boys carried on a broom handle from Hattie Fontenot's bar. I came to learn early on that no venal or meretricious enterprise ex­isted without a community's consent. I thought I understood the nature of evil. I learned at age twelve I did not.

My half brother, who was fifteen months younger than I, was named Jimmie Robicheaux. His mother was a prostitute in Abbeville, but he and I were raised together, largely by our father, known as Big Aldous, who was a trapper and commercial fisherman and offshore derrick man. As children Jimmie and I were inseparable. On summer evenings we used to go to the lighted ball games at City Park and slip into the serving lines at barbecues and crab boils at the open-air pavilions. Our larceny was of an innocent kind, I suppose, and we were quite proud of our­selves when we thought we had outsmarted the adult world. On a hot August night, with lightning rippling through the thunder-heads over the Gulf of Mexico, Jimmie and I were walking through a cluster of oak trees on the edge of the park when we saw an old Ford au­tomobile with two couples inside, one in the front seat, one in the back. We heard a woman moan, then her voice mount in volume and inten­sity. We stared openmouthed as we saw the woman's top half arch back­ward, her naked breasts lit by the glow from a picnic pavilion, her mouth wide with orgasm.

We started to change direction, but the woman was laughing now, her face sweaty and bright at the open window. "Hey, boy, you know what we been doin'? It make my pussy feel so good. Hey, come here, you. We been fuckin', boy," she said. It should have been over, a bad encounter with white trash, probably drunk, caught in barnyard copulation. But the real moment was just be­ginning. The man behind the steering wheel lit a cigarette, his face flar­ing like paste in the flame, then stepped out on the gravel. There were tattoos, like dark blue smears, inside his forearms. He used two fingers to lift the blade out of a pocketknife.

"You like to look t'rew people's windows?" he asked.
"No, sir," I said.
"They're just kids, Legion," the woman in back said, putting on her shirt.
"Maybe that's what they gonna always be," the man said. I had thought his words were intended simply to frighten us. But I could see his face clearly now, the hair combed back like black pitch, the narrow white face with vertical lines in it, the eyes that could look upon a child as the source of his rage against the universe.

Then Jimmie and I were running in the darkness, our hearts pound­ing, forever changed by the knowledge that the world contains pockets of evil that are as dark as the inside of a leather bag. Because my father was out of town, we ran all the way to the icehouse on Railroad Avenue, behind which was the lit and neatly tended house of Giro Shanahan, the only man my father ever spoke of with total ad­miration and trust. Later in life I would learn why my father had such great respect for his friend. Giro Shanahan was one of those rare individuals who would suffer in silence and let the world do him severe injury in order to pro­tect those whom he loved."

So don't let me hear you say you can't find a thing to read, because this stuff is pure 20w50 multigrade, so get down to your local public library pronto and check the shelf under crime fiction - Burke, James Lee, you won't regret it. So it's cheers from your old mate Jacko until we meet again.

Listen to an interview with JLB -

1 comment:

vicki said...

Too much information!! Especially in the trouser department! Love reading your blogs - they are the true meaning of blog!

All the World

Jaques -
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts...