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Dark days on the bayou: James Lee Burke

The Glass Rainbow


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read all I can of James Lee Burke. I guess with so many crime fiction writers of my engagement -- it's an addiction...to character, to location, to attitude.

But Burke is an acquired taste I'm sure because of his over riding lyricism. Some sections of this novel -- the latest in the Dave Robicheaux series -- are achingly evocative of time and place with a sense of humanism that's driven by a rich poetic. His nibs -- Robicheaux -- may be doing one thing  but there is always filagree time to stop the doing (like arriving at a front door, or look into the eyes of a corpse or driving along a country road) and make some -- actually more often there are  many --  discursive remarks  about the weather, the locale, the human condition and our moral context.

Some times I put the novel down at these reading moments  and think, "Wow!" this is almost Elizabethan dramatic mode -- modern soliloquies without  use of iambic pentameter. In Burke's hands  the characters are mere play things in a preset tragedy that unfolds in King Lear mode -- so long as we can assume that the good guys are going to prevail at the end. It even has plenty of thunder and lighning to add to the ambiance. 

And towards what end it will be! This is always tragedian stuff, devoid of humor and with a massive slaughter to be negotiated. New Iberia, Louisiana may be a Robicheaux bailiwick -- presumably to guard and protect -- but  as is the crime fightin' norm, the local death toll is sure to have significant census implications.

Carnage apparently is as American as apple pie in the gun totting south. If you cannot kill your neighbours and muse on about it, then what sort of patriot are you supposed to be?

And that's Burke's primary contradiction: despite his overriding humanism, his sense of protest and outrage against the oligarchy that rules his patch, Burke resolves conflict by taking out the opposition one carcass at a time . Since this part of Louisiana  is Serial Killer Central ,  we are to  assume that this is how justice prevails.

Old Sparky never gets a look in. 

But I -- in my own Elizabethan way perhaps --  protesteth too much. It's a fun ride. I love it. You read Burke and you don't really care about the plot, let alone the solution to the crime(s) because it is all about the journey. The Burke iconography of grotesque characters have to be profiled to be believed. These weird inhabitants of New Iberia have substance . They're there on the page. Accented. Clothed. In your face. 

Just don't take them home to meet mum. 

And their gestures are dramatic in the sense that they are observable and sensuous. They are a sort of Commedia dell Arte  recruited to serve no one but James Lee Burke, dramatist. 

The Glass Rainbow has all this in heaps. It is Burke business in over drive. With Robicheaux's off sider --- Clete, an ex cop now working as a PI -- mixing in big time with the narrative, this is a double barrel war on evil where ever it lies. Evil that is with a capital Southern drawl 'E'.  I don't think Burke has scaled such heights of grotesque melodrama before and bought it off so well. The dark side of Americana here rises up with enough moral challenge and confidence to  may be even over-power Robicheaux himself.  "Good" has to work very hard indeed to prevail in this novel. Evil is everywhere -- and where it does not invade, or corrupt,  it is abetted by indifference and a default complicity. 

In fact, The Glass Rainbow is the darkest view of America you'll get from Burke.  Grimy and repulsive crime is so entrenched and pervasive that Libertarian solutions at the point of a good guy's gun don't seem enough any more. Government, the oligarchy and organised crime are now politically  indistinguishable as their collective pursuit of personal self interest  have merged.

It is dark days indeed on the bayou. 

Burke's world is great place to visit.  But I wouldn't want to live there.

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