Monday, September 1, 2008

James Lee Burke Is One Scary Dude

by Ben Small

For the longest time, I didn't read James Lee Burke. A friend had portrayed his writing as describing frogs on a bayou log. "How many times can you describe that frog?" my friend said.

Then I read Burke. Had some spare time, and one of his books appeared as if by magic. Okay, so I was curious: What was so great about a frog - Budweiser ads excepted - that merited description in oh so many books?

Well, wow! That frog does dance.

Most "How To" books urge the writer not to go overboard on description, to keep the picture portrayals strictly relevant to the story, lest the reader get side-tracked or bored. And many writers violate that rule, and are shot as a consequence. But Burke gets away with using descriptions to fill about a third of his page count.

How does he do this?

Simple. He puts the reader in the bayou, swimming in the muck and quicksand, swatting the mosquitoes, sweating like Kirstie Alley in a sauna, and stinking like a Kathy Reichs' bloated-body-bugfest.

And evidently, a lot of people like to experience that: mucking, swatting, sweating and stinking. Or is it that they don't; that they want to experience Louisiana without actually going there? I'd say count me in that post-Katrina group except for one thing: the food. My god, the food. Why can't Arizona make a decent facsimile of Louisiana gumbo?

Well, I've gotten side-tracked here. The mere thought of Louisiana food always does that to me. Back to James Lee Burke and his writing.

What kind of nutbag is this guy?

Stephen King and other writing authorities suggest writing what you know. If James Lee Burke is doing that, I can learn from this man. More or less, every one of his books I can remember has featured a cast of people you never want to meet: degenerate preachers; evil rich bad guys who lust after pretty young and innocent things; pimps and prostitutes; druggies and boozers; tattoed boob-ettes; gunbulls; prison rapists; mobsters; gamblers; hitmen; crooked cops and politicians, and last but not least, Clete Purcell.

Can there be a more degenerate character than Clete? Forget the gut, the unhealthy glow of 220-over-140 blood pressure readings, and his pock-marked and sweaty sun-burned neck. This stuff just makes Clete look like Larry, the cable guy. No, Clete's got the personality to match these wonderful characteristics. Pop your fingers and count: 1) Clete's always drunk and sweaty; 2) He can be counted on to say and do the dumbest of things to all the wrong people; 3) He's killed a federal informant; 4) He enjoys drugs and prostitutes; 5) He was a corrupt N.O. cop; 6) He's murdered a bunch of people in a plane crash; 7) He's probably left more teeth in toilets than a dental convention, and 8) He's been known to attack with innovative weapons such as hammers, fully oiled frying pans, and tire irons. (These tools are just for novelty; Clete likes guns, knives, saps and baseball bats, too.) Clete actually enjoyed Vietnam, thought it was a hoot. So, of course, with all these charms, how can Clete help but be a babe-magnet? His latest conquest: an FBI agent. Smart guy, that Purcell: Go with a chick who can bust you for lying. What's next: Playing medicine ball with a hornet's nest?

But seriously, how could Clete not be a stud? He's so vulnerable, isn't he? What that poor man has had to endure. Clete's seen more hospitals than Doc Kildare. Poor S-O-B had his hand squashed in a car door; he's been smashed with enough iron to make him fearful of magnets; he's been shot so many times he could strain spaghetti, and in the latest Burke masterpiece Swan Peak he was tied to a tree, blindfolded, doused with gasoline and forced to listen to a Zippo's spinning wheel.

Doesn't Clete ever wonder if it's smart having Dave Robicheaux as a buddy? Seems to me the only thing more hazardous is having Jessica Fletcher around.

And what about Dave? Poor ole Dave Robicheaux stands for truth and justice, and it's cost Dave plenty. He's had wives murdered and a daughter threatened. He's been suspended numerous times, suspected of murder over and over. He's been beaten, stabbed, shot, haunted by Vietnam nightmares, and don't ask about his parental issues. The guy's a drunk. And is it any wonder? Dave's hollow inside; he's not just got worms in his head, they're full-bodied snakes. In Swan Peak, Dave - the good guy - threatens to throw a preacher into an airplane propeller. My goodness, we thought water boarding was bad. And, oh, did I mention, he married a nun? Dave best do some serious repenting.

So getting back to my point: If what Stephen King and others say about writing what you know is true, James Lee Burke is one spooky dude.

But can I learn from this man? Hell yes, about description and the depravity of man.

Do I want to be his pal?


Why not. I just bought a Total Gym. Chuck Norris is my buddy.


Beth Terrell said...

Ben, I was turned on to James Lee Burke's writing by a co-worker who said it was like reading poetry, but with really great plots.

I agree with you 100% about the food in New Orleans. I'm not that crazy about the mosquitoes, the humidity, or the corruption, but man...there is some seriously good eating in that city.

Lee Lofland said...

James Lee Burke is a genius. Before I read one of his books I suit up in rain gear because I know I'll soon be drenched in swamp water. The imagery is that good. I'm a huge fan.

Chester Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chester Campbell said...

I haven't read James Lee Burke in a while, but I love his writing. My only non-encounter with him was at the Las Vegas Bouchercon in 2004. After my panel, I sat quietly in the signing room, not wanting to be disturbed by autograph seekers, and watched a long line snake out across the room into the corridor from the vacant table next to mine. When I inquired, I was told James Lee Burke would be there anon.

Anonymous said...

I was in that Bouchercon Las Vegas line. We had been instructed not to speak to JLB, just hand over a book for signing.

But I had already spoken to JLB. I met him in that long haul between the casino and the panel rooms. He was coming and I was going.

I recognized him and smiled. He held up his hand as if to ward me off. I said,"I love your books." He grinned, and said, "Thank you."

And we both kept walking, neither one of us missing a step. LOL Just one of the little magic moments at a big convention like Bouchercon.

Ben, I loved your description of JLB's books and characters. Right on!

James Lee is a genius. Whatever he writes, I love.

Pat B.

Kylene said...

Good for people to know.