James Lee Burke
It ranges from the Bible to Cormac McCarthy, encompasses every style and tone from the epic Russian novels to the comic plays of Oscar Wilde, and it became the catalyst that helped fuel the school of hardboiled detective fiction as it evolved from pulp magazines to hardback novels.
One such hardback example is James Lee Burke’s 2007 novel “The Tin Roof Blowdown,” a book that sets Burke’s longtime protagonist, New Iberia, La., detective Dave Robicheaux, amid the destruction that Hurricane Katrina wreaked across the Southern Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005.
Burke’s novel, which is The Spokesman-Review’s Book Club read for May, is ablaze with the author’s rage over the destruction of an area that has been a part of his life since his birth 71 years ago in Houston, Texas.
Burke, who splits time between New Iberia and Missoula, Mont., sets the tone for his novel from the very beginning. Robicheaux, a Vietnam veteran, has suffered for years (and 15 previous novels) from nightmares in which he finds himself back in the jungle. But as “Tin Roof Blowdown” opens, he awakens from the dream and finds that, for once, he has not been drawn back into the past.
“I also tell myself that the past is a decaying memory and that I do not have to relive and empower it unless I choose to do so,” Robicheaux tells us. “As a recovering drunk, I know I cannot allow myself the luxury of resenting my government for lying to a whole generation of young men and women who believed they were serving a noble cause. Nor can I resent those who treated us as oddities if not pariahs when we returned home.
“When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.”
And then he hesitates.
“But that was before Katrina,” he continues. “That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.”
That’s just the beginning of this 500-plus-page novel, the latest in a series that dates back to 1987 (a 17th, “Swan Peak,” is due in July).
The novel’s plot involves several characters: Robicheaux, the recovering-alcoholic lawman living with his ex-nun wife and maturing daughter and helping the overtaxed New Orleans Police Department investigate storm-related crimes; Clete Purcell, Robicheaux’s self-destructive ex-cop best friend; Otis Baylor, an insurance salesman who becomes a suspect in the shootings of a quartet of looters; Bertrand Melancon, one of the looters who seeks salvation for crimes that many would believe are unforgivable; and Sidney Kovick, a mob guy who has his own debts to settle.
But the book’s backdrop, New Orleans, is always there, always demanding a reckoning that Burke is only too happy to provide.
“New Orleans isn’t a city,” Burke wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece. “It’s a Petrarchan sonnet. There’s no other place on the planet like it.”
And to watch that sonnet come apart was enough to cause Burke, after some hesitation, to write about it. He explained his intent during an online interview with book critic Jane Ciabattari.
“The key to the novel is the epilogue,” Burke said. “It’s not about the storm, it’s about the betrayal and abandonment of the people, the poorest of the poor. It’s about greed. And the same people wage war. People who never go themselves. They use the suffering they cause to validate their deeds. They are timeless. It’s always those who do not go themselves who are the most bellicose in their rhetoric. We’re living in a time where we’ve seen a level of cynicism and prevarication I’ve not seen in my life. I was born in the Depression and grew up in the War years. We thought we were one people. We felt government was on our side.”
If that isn’t rage, it’s the next best thing.