Every time I read something by James Lee Burke I tell myself, “You really need to read more James Lee Burke.” This year I’m finally getting around to it, and it’s made my reading time richer and more rewarding. I just finished PEGASUS DESCENDING after reading CADILLAC JUKEBOX in March and JOLIE BLON’S BOUNCE in December. I don’t like him more each time anymore; he’s who I come back to when I want to be reminded why I love to read.
His characters walk in off the cane break as fully-formed people, with lives beyond the glimpse we catch through the window Burke provides. He uses the Cajun, Creole, and Confederate background of New Iberia Parish like Rembrandt choosing a precise color from a palette of his own creation. The names are eccentric to a northern ear; PEGASUS DESCENDING includes Cesaire Darbonne, Koko Hebert, Monarch Little, and my personal favorite, Bellerophon Lujan. Maybe those who don’t live along the Bayou Teche don’t think twice about them, but they set the tone and atmosphere better than five pages of description.
Which, come to think of it, Burke also does as well, or better, than anyone. It’s fashionable today to skip non-essential description in the interest of moving the story forward. Nothing wrong with that; the quicker pace fits better with contemporary readers’ expectation and attention spans. Burke’s descriptions come from another, more leisurely time, before television and movies denied us the privilege of drawing our own mental pictures. The astute reader quickly forgives the lessened pace, thanks to descriptions of such beauty you don’t want him to cut to the chase. An example from PEGASUS DESCENDING:
The transformation that took place in Whitey’s face was like none I had ever seen in another person. The eyes didn’t blink or narrow; the color in them did not brighten with anger or haze over with hidden thoughts. The jawbone never pulsed against the cheek. Instead, his expression seemed to take on the emotionless solidity of carved wood, with eyes as dull and cavernous as buckshot. I believe I could have scratched a match alight on his face and he wouldn’t have blinked.
The same counter-contemporary tendency is shown in Burke’s scenes of violence. It’s not that he lingers over them for prurient or gratuitous purpose; he lets them unfold, like watching in slow-motion. The suspense builds as he ramps up the tension a sentence at a time, holding back the climax like a classical composer’s delayed cadence, so when the release comes it’s quick and you have to wait for your blood pressure to return to normal before going on to the next page. The pressure is never completely released; enough always remains to sow the seeds of the next crescendo.
It takes a singular talent to be able to fight the tendencies of modern culture and win as Burke routinely does, and what I say may read like the pabulum of hero worship. Those who are unfamiliar with his work should try him, then draw their conclusions. Those already acquainted with Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel are already wondering which one they should read next.