Monday, July 7, 2008
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster. 402 pp. $25.95
James Lee Burke's novels are often distinguished by his ability to balance exceptionally lyrical prose with exceptionally violent plots. His longtime protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, Vietnam veteran, lawman and recovering alcoholic, is a man haunted by both the horrors he has witnessed and those he has committed himself. Last year's Robicheaux novel, "The Tin Roof Blowdown," was one of Burke's best, in part because it centered on Hurricane Katrina and its violence was intrinsic -- some deaths were caused by the flooding in New Orleans, others by the looting that followed. In his new, quite different novel, "Swan Peak," Burke offers a troubling outpouring of bloodshed, much of it gratuitous. He may be trying to make a statement about the human condition, but even his admirers may think he's gone too far.
Robicheaux, his wife, Molly, a former nun, and his best friend, Clete Purcell, are vacationing in the mountains of western Montana, hoping to forget for a time what Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have done to their beloved Louisiana. In the opening scene, Clete is fly-fishing in an isolated, idyllic setting, but he finds no peace even there. He recalls his drunken, abusive father, atrocities in Vietnam, and New Orleans sinking beneath the waves "just as Atlantis had." Then two men arrive in a pickup truck, threaten him and drive over his fishing rod. The trouble-prone Clete vows revenge.
The men in the pickup work for two brothers, Texas oil millionaires named Wellstone, who have bought a Montana ranch. One of the brothers, Leslie, has a face horribly disfigured by a fire. His wife is a talented young country singer named Jamie Sue. She married him when she was pregnant and her true love, himself a singer, had been railroaded into prison. We see the singer, Jimmy Dale Greenwood, in the Texas prison where he is raped by a sadistic guard named Troyce Nix. Finally Jimmy Dale stabs Nix, escapes the prison and heads for Montana to reclaim Jamie Sue. When Nix recovers from his wounds, he follows Jimmy Dale north to find and kill him.
Dave, Molly and Clete are soon involved with these dangerous characters, as well as with a corrupt evangelist, a psychopath who works for the Wellstone brothers, and a serial killer who murders two couples and ties Clete to a tree with the intent of setting him on fire. It's a complicated plot, and just about everybody in it, with the exception of ex-nun Molly, has murder in mind.
Burke is not content to give us the present-day violence of his story. He embellishes it with constant reminders of past violence. One of the Wellstone brothers has a history that recalls Cullen Davis, the Texas oilman who in 1976 was accused (but not convicted) of shooting and wounding his wife and killing two other people. Nix, the sadistic prison guard, was involved in the waterboarding death of a prisoner in Iraq and rapes at the Abu Ghraib prison before he returned to assault others in the Texas prison. The psychopath who works for the Wellstone brothers is the nephew of one of the men who killed three civil-rights workers in Mississippi in the 1960s. We meet a writer who is researching the 1947 Texas City explosion that killed nearly 600 people. Robicheaux recalls a woman he knows whose parents died in the Holocaust. Fears of the serial killer inspire memories of Ted Bundy. We're told about 19th-century massacres of Indians in Montana and about 1980s death squads in El Salvador. Robicheaux even relates the story of two polite ex-convicts he knew in Alcoholics Anonymous years before who one night tortured and killed two women they'd picked up in a bar.
Why, given the violence of his plot, is Burke adding this encyclopedia of horrors past? He's a serious writer, perhaps too serious here. When writers address ugly subjects, they sometimes resolve to spare the reader nothing. It's an understandable impulse but not one that necessarily makes for good fiction. Burke wants to make us think the unthinkable, but instead he's cluttered up and weakened his novel. One tragedy, well expressed, can move us, but 20 or 30 leave us numb.
Another problem relates to Clete Purcell. He's somewhere in his 60s, a once-powerful man running to fat, given to violence and drunkenness, not to mention Hawaiian shirts, porkpie hats and body odor. Still, he charms his way into bed with two attractive women in their 30s, one of whom is a lesbian. Perhaps we should be happy for the old goat, but his romantic successes do strain credulity.
There are, of course, grace notes in any Burke novel. His lyricism is well applied to the physical glories of Montana. He surprises us by having the brutal prison guard develop signs of humanity. Fans of country and western music will enjoy Burke's references to Jimmie Rodgers, Skeeter Davis, Kitty Wells, Bob Wills and other luminaries of yesteryear. But for all the nice touches, the book doesn't work. When you write as many novels as Burke -- this is his 27th -- you're bound to have ups and downs. "Swan Peak" is one of his downs.