A MORNING FOR FLAMINGOS
By James Lee Burke
Little, Brown. 294 pp. $18.95
WE ARE everywhere in this country a great anthology, but nowhere more so than in Louisiana. From its beginning New Orleans was a major port and so a cosmopolitan, international city; as it revolved from Spanish to French to indigenous American rule and back again, unable to fully embrace any one of these cultures, it composed its own, a blend of French, Acadian, Creole, black, Latin and native white cultures as rich and fecund as the Delta soil it squats on.
Though retaining their apartness, these discrete cultures were never sequestered in New Orleans, joining in the flow of the city's history and daily discourse. They were, however, marginal, as today's Acadian culture is marginal. And it's always the outsider -- a Tocqueville, the artist isolating himself intentionally, the sleeper waking, the detective moving through the city in his shell of solitude -- who sees most clearly what a culture is about.
No one captures current Louisiana culture, or the feel of that very particular place, as well as James Lee Burke. Again and again Burke brings you the diversity of parallel Louisiana cultures -- Cajun, black, criminal -- and gives you a sense of how they manage to coexist, how they've always managed to coexist here. His characters' legs are planted in this country's occult history as surely as in their own personal histories. And again and again Burke makes you feel the humid, laden air pressing close, smell the particular sweetness of banana trees and stagnant water, taste boudin and fried shrimp and cayenne pepper and thyme, watch pelicans rising against crimson sunsets.
It is also quite possible that no one writes better detective novels.
A Morning for Flamingos is the fourth of Burke's novels featuring ex-New Orleans detective Dave Robicheaux. The previous novel, Black Cherry Blues (1989), earned Burke an Edgar from fellow mystery writers and a consolidation of sentiments hinted at in the Cleveland Plain Dealer's review of the second Robicheaux book, Heaven's Prisoners (1988): "Burke writes the kind of crime/suspense novel other writers wish they could write." He's always been a writer's writer. The amazing thing is that he is also a common reader's writer, a creator of muscular, violent, headlong stories that honor and at the same time expand conventions of the form.
There's an implied dichotomy, running back at least to Hemingway in the postwar period, whispering to us always that Manliness and Sensitivity will not lie down in the same bed. A writer may choose the way of style, become an Updike, for instance, or he may choose to bludgeon the stuff of the streets onto paper and become a Mailer, but he or she, no mortal, could possibly do both.
Hardboiled fiction, its roots in Hemingway's reductive style, was one urgent offshoot of Manliness. Hammett's and Chandler's hardboiled novels retrieved terror from fog-shrouded castles and far lands and put it up in bright, neon-lit rooms over bus stations and bars. Trembling on the edge of the real, the pared-down style of these writers and the school they spawned in its intensity did in fact create a new kind of urban poetry -- but it was a poetry of unremitting isolation. The detective floats out over the city's corruption, the pain and failures of his life shelled in alcohol, an easy cynicism, overarching moral imperative, hardnosed Yankee pragmatism.
A Morning for Flamingos finds Robicheaux, beset by debts, once again working as a cop, this time on the small New Iberia force. An assignment to transfer prisoners for execution -- one an icy professional killer, the other the grandson of Tante Lemon, an old Creole woman whose life has paralleled in some ways that of Robicheaux's family -- ends with his partner dead, Tante Lemon's grandson, Tee Beau, on the run and Dave himself almost dead in a ditch behind a gas station. After recovering, of course, Robicheaux must go after the man who shot him. The search takes him undercover in New Orleans, on a collision course with a childhood sweetheart, and into the home of an all-too-human crimelord. But as always, Robicheaux's true enemy, the one he really must overcome, is himself. HERE IS A scene from near book's end. The man who shot him is trapped beneath an engine block with the tide coming in as Robicheaux sits beside him helping hold the rubber tube through which he's breathing:
"I tried to screw the hose tighter into his mouth, but he had swallowed water and was fighting now. At first his hands locked on my wrists, as though I were the source of his suffering; then his fists burst through the surface and flailed the air, and finally caught my shirt and tore it down the front of my chest. I pushed the hose down at him again, but there was no way now he could blow the water out of it and regain his breath.
"Then one hand came up from my shirt, and felt my face like a blind man reaching out to discover some fragile and tender human mystery, and a last solitary air bubble floated from his throat to the surface and popped in the dead air."
This is from quite early in the book, as Robicheaux lies -- dying, he assumes -- in the sewage and stagnant water of that coulee:.
"Some people say that you review your whole life in that final moment. I don't believe that's true. You see the folds in a blackened leaf, mushrooms growing thickly around the damp roots of an oak tree, a bullfrog glistening darkly on a log; you hear water coursing over rocks, dripping out of the trees, you smell it blowing in a mist. Fog can lie on your tongue as sweet and wet as cotton candy, the cattails and reeds turning a silver-green more beautiful than a painting in one flicker of lightning across the sky. You think of the texture of skin, the grainy pores, the nest of veins that are like the lines in a leaf."
Few other writers have ever obtained the delicate balance between action and contemplation that's a given in any James Lee Burke book. The sensuousness of descriptive and lyric passages would be remarkable in any novel, and in the context of thrillers, becomes truly astonishing. There simply aren't many writers who look this closely at things, who open themselves so fully to the sensual world; fewer still who so richly recreate such moments for the reader.
There's a jacket photo of Burke standing in nondescript plaid shirt outside a diner (on Corondolet just inside Lee Circle, perhaps) with hand-lettered cardboard signs advertising ribeye steaks, fried catfish and homemade biscuits. Nothing could be more right for Burke. His compelling theme is the search for honor in a world where southern gentlemen have devolved to good ol' boys; where friends with names like Clete and Bubba and Batist in leisure and seersucker suits will stiff you and fight you if you call them on it, then turn and fight at your side against impossible odds; where at every turn centers won't hold, rules are forever changing.
Perched in the cabin and boat-rental/bait-shop business on bayou's edge in New Iberia where he retreats at the end of the first novel, The Neon Rain (1987), Dave Robicheaux is about as marginal a character as exists. Acadian, a Vietnam vet who surrendered much of his adult life to alcohol and another large, brutalizing chunk to being a cop in New Orleans, he's trying hard to hold on to what he's been able to retrieve of his life and of a way of life "being consumed on the edges like an old photograph held to a flame." ROBICHEAUX's major struggle is with alcoholism, and this is Burke's genius -- that again and again he brings you to understand that the real terrors, the real struggles, are personal, private ones; that the bad guys have faces and families just as the good ol
boys do; that any foothold is precarious and at best will hold only long enough for you to reach the next.
I'm writing here as though the Robicheaux novels are the only ones, but a handful of earlier books, in retrospect remarkably of a piece with the detective novels, attests to Burke's mastery of narrative, distinct voice and concerns, and personal vision.
Two for Texas (1982; retitled Sabine Spring for a recent paperback reissue from Watermark Press of Wichita, Kansas) is a western that boils down genre conventions the way Balzac did coffee until something dark, bitter and invigorating is left. Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971, available from the Countryman Press in Woodstock, Vt.) draws fascinating parallels between that old West and contemporary, discontinuous life. Hack Polland's grandfather once put John Wesley Hardin in jail. Hack himself, a congressional candidate, flounders in willfulness and self-destructive impulses, his own and others' conflicting images of himself, and a spiderlike network of media, business and political influence forever pushing aside individuality, individual values, and often the individual himself. The Lost Get-Back Boogie (1986) is a wonderful portrait of a smalltime musician's life and contains some of Burke's most memorable, affecting writing; virtually every page moves the reader.
All of Burke's novels end with an epilogue set apart from the narrative and summing up what has become of these people in the world's headlong rush. The individual life, Burke demonstrates again and again, is frail, locked forever to the moment's sensations and uncertainties. Yet behind that life -- and this is why the bayou and Louisiana's perduring cultures are such important metaphors for Burke -- is something stretching back to the far reach of history and of being, something which, through bonds and commitments to others, through re-embracing the natural world and its rhythms, one may yet be a part of.
James Sallis is a poet and novelist who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.