Tuesday, June 19, 2007

James Lee Burke

Has remained one of my favorite mystery writers over the past twenty years or so. Up until recently the Dave Robicheaux books, set in New Iberia, Louisiana, have, to my mind, far outweighed anything else he's written. Part of this is due to their authenticity, and part to the extraordinary character development, particularly of Robicheaux, that Burke has developed over nearly 20 novels. But I'm beginning to have a subtle change of heart. I'm just finishing In the Moon of Red Ponies which is set in Montana, the Missoula area, and features Billy Bob Holland, a former Texas Ranger turned lawyer. Burke lives in the Missoula area, up Grant Creek, part of the year, and in New Iberia the rest, but his earlier Montana-based novels seemed excessive in their attempts to be authentically Montanan. They included so much local color, often crammed, jammed, exaggerated and compressed into what seemed a Montana Realtor's wetdream. Passages approached being ludicrous. Added to this was Burke's frequent tendency for non-stop action. Certain novels are so tiring to read that one can't imagine anyone actually surviving them. If the weren't shot they would die of fatigue. In In the Moon of Red Ponies however artistic balance is achieved , and it is, to my mind, an exceptional novel.

Burke's primary characters (Dave Robicheaux and now Billy Bob Holland) are morally complex, carrying with them acts of past violence they will never outlive, decisions that have gone bad, and demons that haunt their dreams. They are violent men who live by their own code, cutting Faustian deals when they have to. But they have huge hearts, are at times too trusting, and more often than not take the side of the underdog. And they fiercely defend their families.

Dialog is often cryptic in a Burke novel, to the point where one feels the speakers were either kicked in the head by a mule, or need to be. Burke has, over the years, mastered the art of insider dialect, much like Elmore Leonard. He also has the tendency toward ellipsis, so his dialog sometimes reads like a series of riddles or unintelligible remarks. These books are page turners in a sense, but you often have to earn them.

Another tradmark of Burke is his evocative, almost idyllic depiction of the natural world. At his best he's a stunning writer, and his followers rave about his poetic renderings. He creates an almost Edenic world where humans have trespassed, and the best humans, still tresspassers, attempt to undo the deeds of the worst. Nature to him is sacred, and he can be compared to the best nature writers and landscape painters who attempt to evoke a spiritual, pantheistic dimension from their art. It is no mistake that Holland and Robicheaux live in remote locations surrounded by nature, and often observe and comment on what they witness. "Through the side window I could see steam rising from the metal roof on our barn and, farther on, a small herd of elk coming down an arroyo, their hooves pocking the snow that had frozen on the grass during the night." (Billy Bob Holland at his home west of Lolo, Montana.)

It is probably no coincidence that there are similarities between the work of Burke and Cormac McCarthy. Burke was born in Texas, McCarthy now lives in Texas. They both attribute a spiritual significance to nature. They both investigate violence, and use it as an aesthetic. In In the Moon of Red Ponies Burke creates a character of such apparent evil, omniscience, and sociopathology that he approaches the mythic dimensions of Anton Chigurh in McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Still, there are major differences, and Burke wanders on the more arable side of the fence far more than McCarthy, who when criticized for including substantial Spanish dialog in Cities of the Plain, stated simply that if one didn't like it one didn't have to read it. Accessibility is rarely that much of a problem in a Burke novel.

I actually met Burke once, driving with a friend and neighbor of Burke's, Dexter Roberts, up Grant Creek Road north of Missoula. He was jogging, and we stopped and talked. He seemed like a southern gentleman, gracious, and sincere. He had a darkness about him as well that I didn't see him out-running on that sun-sprayed mountain road. I wish him a long life and many more books.

1 comment:

Miguel said...

Nice review. You turned me on to Burke a few years ago, and I have yet to regret it.

I think he stacks up with Crumley's earlier works as well.