I had never read a book by James Lee Burke until two months ago. If you've never read James Lee Burke, you're probably saying, "Yeah, so what?" If you have read him, though, the words running through your head are more likely to be, "What the hell took you so long?"
You know, it sometimes seems as if I've shelved practically every book there is at least once. Some books, I've shelved dozens of times. The books of James Lee Burke fall into the latter category. I love shelving in the fiction sections, and heck, I'm the boss, so I shelve wherever I want. I finally picked up one of James Lee Burke's books for a purpose other than placing it alphabetically on a shelf a couple of months ago, after running out of things to read (I know--I have pile upon pile of unread books in every room of the house, not to mention all the books that have made it to the shelves without ever having been read...still, I run out. It's not rational, so don't ask me to explain it.). I had grabbed an advance reading copy of his latest book Pegasus Descending, at a publisher's expo, and decided to give it a whirl.
I read the first paragraph:
"In the early 1980s, when I was still going steady with Jim Beam straight-up and a beer back, I became part of an exchange program between NOPD and a training academy for police cadets in Dade County, Florida. That meant I did a limited amount of work in a Homicide unit at Miami P.D. and taught a class in criminal justice at a community college way up on N.W. 27th Avenue, not far from a place called Opa-Locka."
Okay, I thought to myself, I'm willing to give this a try. It seems kind of hard-boiled (which I like), it's set in the south (a geographic and cultural area I'm relatively unfamiliar with), and it's not awkwardly written or overly cliched (so far).
So I read the next paragraph. Two sentences in, I was intrigued. "Opa-Locka was a gigantic pink stucco-and-plaster nightmare designed to look like a complex of Arabian mosques. In the early A.M., fog from either the ocean or the Glades, mixed with dust and carbon monoxide, clung like strips of dirty cotton to the decrepit minarets and cracked walls of the buildings." By the end of the paragraph I was hooked. "Low-rider gangbangers, the broken mufflers of their gas-guzzlers throbbing against the asphalt, smashed liquor bottles on the sidewalks and no one said a word." A beastly hot, polluted, crime-ridden community of bad luck and no hope drawn in seven amazing sentences.
Forget the compelling plot, forget the beautifully rendered characters fully informed by their pasts and being flung--sometimes on their own steam and sometimes propelled by forces beyond their control--into their futures, forget the exquisite descriptions of New Orleans and the New Iberia bayou, so real that you find yourself wiping the sweat off your brow and reaching for a long swallow of the Jax beer you think should be at your elbow--hell, I hadn't even gotten to any of those things yet. But this writing. This is writing that elevates the genre.
I know, James Lee Burke could probably care the less whether some bookseller believes his chosen genre is elevated by the caliber of his writing. He might even believe that the genre is just fine as it is, and has no need to be elevated. Heck, I kind of think that myself. I love a down-and-dirty thriller, driven by its dark cliches and workmanlike writing. But this writing. This writing. So unique. Simultaneously pure and ornate (how is that even possible). So evocative. So beautiful.
The action in Pegasus Descending ranges over two and a half decades, starting in 1980 with a violent, unsolved armored car robbery and murder, witnessed, drunkenly, by Dave Robichaux. Twenty-five years later the chain of events begun in 1980 in Dade County, Florida find their way to New Iberia, Louisiana. Now, as then, though he's clean and sober, married with a grown-up daughter, Dave Robichaux finds himself drawn into events, haunted by his past short-comings and driven to solve the case and make it right.
Although the story, as in all of Burke's novels, is a good one, well plotted and well told, it's the characters (both human and geographic, for New Orleans and its environs is as important a character as any)--particularly that of Dave Robichaux--that drive them. Dave Robichaux is as deep, complex, and interesting as they come: Vietnam vet, constantly recovering alcoholic, multiply married (three or four? I'm not sure, as I've read only four of the novels, and these out of chronological order), the voice of a poet with an almost unbearable violent streak. Robichaux makes mistakes, repeats those mistakes, realizes as he's making a mistake how foolish he's being. He's tender with his wife, he's stubborn in his convictions. He's often wrong. But he gets the job done, and so does James Lee Burke.
Burke ends this novel with a brief, post-Hurricanes Katrina and Rita coda, which, in other hands, might have been a cold and calculating move to gain sales with a release timed to just barely precede the anniversary of the storms. Rather, it celebrates the resilience of the people, and the heroes who worked round the clock to save them. "If there are saints who walk among us, many of them wear the uniform of the United States Coast Guard. They flew without rest or sleep, day after day, suspended from cables, holding the infirm and the elderly and the helpless against their chests, with no regard for their own safety, with a level of courage that others might equal but never surpass." And, "...you don't surrender the country of your birth to either the forces of greed or natural calamity. The songs in our hearts don't die. The spring will come aborning again, whether we're here for it or not."
Please read James Lee Burke. Read him for his edge-of-the-seat thrillers. Read him for his unforgettable characters. But most of all, read him for his heavenly prose.