Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Gobsmacked by art: James Lee Burke's The Tin Roof Blowdown

Every now and then, a work of art, or part of one, hits me so hard and so perfectly that I feel it almost like a punch to the solar plexus.  I have to sit down, close my eyes, and wait for my mental breath to return.  I generally don't share those moments with others, both because they sound like so much hyperbole and because what works for me may not touch the next person.  I've decided, though, to start honoring those works when they hit me, because, hey, it's the least I can do by way of payback.

James Lee Burke is, as long-time readers know, one of my favorite writers.  For my money, he's one of the best writers working in English.  Period.  

The Tin Roof Blowdown is not his most recent book; far from it.  It appeared in 2007, so I've waited a long time to read it.  The reason is that this is his post-Katrina book, and I expected to be powerful--and powerfully unsettling, particularly because I adore New Orleans.  It was.  I loved the book, but it was also at least as disturbing as I expected it to be.  I was reading it in Cleveland while at Bouchercon, nibbling slowly at it as if it were the last meal I might ever get.  John Connolly mentioned it as proof that a writer can deliver works of genius at any age.  

I obviously recommend it highly.  

What made me put it down, stretch out on the bed, close my eyes, and need more air was a passage near the end, a section in the voice of Burke's most enduring character and one of the greatest characters in the history of detective fiction, maybe all fiction, Dave Robicheaux.  At the risk of stretching the limits of fair use, I'm going to reproduce a fair chunk of that passage here.  
New Orleans was a song that went under the waves. Sometimes in my dreams I see a city beneath the sea.  In it, green-painted iron streetcars made in the year 1910 still lumber down the neutral ground through the Garden District, past block upon block of Victorian and antebellum homes, past the windmill palms and the gigantic live oaks, past guesthouses and the outdoor cafes and art deco restaurants whose scrolled purple and pink and green neon burn in the mist like smoke from marker grenades.
Every hotel on Canal still features an orchestra on the roof, where people dance under the stars and convince one another that the mildness of the season is eternal and was created especially for them. In the distance, Lake Pontchartrain is wine-dark, flanged with palm trees, and pelicans skim above the chop, the rides at the waterside amusement park glowing whitely against the sky. Irving Fazola is playing at the Famous Door and Pete Fountain at his own joint off Bourbon. Jackson Square is a medieval plaza where jugglers, mimes, string bands, and unicyclists with umbrellas strapped on top of their heads perform in front of St. Louis Cathedral.  No one is concerned with clocks.  The city is as sybaritic as it is religious. Even death becomes an excuse for celebration.
Perhaps the city has found its permanence inside its own demise, like Atlantis, trapped forever under the waves, the sun never harsh, filtered through the green tint of the ocean so that neither rust nor moth nor decay ever touches its face.  
That's the dream that I have.  But the reality is otherwise. Category 5 hurricanes don't take prisoners and the sow that eats its farrow doesn't surrender self-interest in the cause of mercy. 
New Orleans was systematically destroyed and that destruction began in the early 1980s with the deliberate reduction by half of federal funding to the city and the simultaneous introduction of crack cocaine into the welfare projects. The failure to repair the levees before Katrina and the abandonment of tens of thousands of people to their fate in the aftermath have causes that I'll let others sort out. But in my view the irrevocable fact remains that we saw an American city turned into Baghdad on the southern rim of the United States. If we have a precedent in our history for what happened in New Orleans, it's lost on me.
I don't know how that hit you, but, damn, it gobsmacked me.  


Anonymous said...

I got to work with several people displaced by Katrina and other hurricanes.They all lost homes, some even lost family members.
They all choose to relocate to NC to work at the Casino for which I was empolyed, all were fearful, discouraged and lonley. All though also were very greatful and gracious, as we accepted them and welcomed them in a number of ways.
I saw pictures, heard story after story, that to this day hurt my heart deeply and bring the faces of those fine people back to my mind.
The people of this great country, if not the goverment, are still the best in the world and compassion is alive and growing.
Thank you for sharing.

Deb Franklin said...

It didn't gobsmack me. I lived it. I had armed soldiers keeping me from getting to my house.

I still rage into the night over what happened. The things that didn't make the news are what make me scream them most.

I have to stop, or I will scream...and take over your journal....but I won't.

Mark said...

I am so sorry, Deb. I cannot imagine what you lived through.


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