Monday, October 03, 2016

James Lee Burke's two halves of the French Quarter

I'm enjoying James Lee Burke's first Dave Robicheaux novel, The Neon Rain, set back when Robicheaux was still a New Orleans police lieutenant.

Here are two of the things I've liked:
  1. The scene in which Robicheaux finds himself drinking with a troupe of circus performers whose transportation has broken down. They have no idea that they're hilarious, but you will.
  2. That Robicheaux seems like he'll be a more believable iteration of the recovering alcoholic cop who falls back off the wagon than are most examples of the type.
St. Louis Cathedral. Photo by Peter
Rozovsky/Detectives Beyond Borders
I especially like Burke's portrayal of New Orleans. He presents a gritty French Quarter populated by hustlers, transvestites, and other rough characters, which he contrasts with inhabitants of a gentrifying Jackson Square. He also takes a shot at fancified fake country bands playing in the street, and he makes sure the reader knows that the Garden District is where the better-off people live.

But Burke also makes certain to have Robicheaux talk about Café du Monde and look out at St. Louis Cathedral. He wanted to rip the veil of the gauzy, gaudy surface of the city, but also to give the punters (like me) what they want; I bought the book as part of my post-Bouchercon hangover, and I'm glad I did.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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16 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

I read Neon Rain quite awhile ago, before my first trip to New Orleans, so I didn't have quite the identification with place that I would now. Nevertheless, I loved his writing and have no idea why I didn't get on to more immediately. Definitely will now, though, with a kind of street map in my head.

I may be wrong but I think I first read Burke at the same time I first read Ken Bruen, and I think I saw certain similarities. Lovely photo.

October 03, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I made precisely that comparison, between Robicheaux and Bruen's Jack Taylor. The difference is that Bruen gives us only the barest glimpse of Taylor's life on the force before he gets booted out, and Burke gives at least a considerable part of one book to that part of his character's life. And thanks on the photo.

October 03, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Very interesting. Bruen is definitely more laconic, so I didn't remember why I found them similar. Must be a similarity in the protagonists.

October 03, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, the similarity is there: Cops who get in trouble, who drink too much, who wind up leaving the police. And yep, Burke gets more lyrical and Louisiana sunsets and vegetation than Bruen gets about Galway.

October 03, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Ireland vs. Louisiana, then.

October 03, 2016  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Nice. I'd missed this one. I need to get me some of that.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Dana King said...

It's been a long time since I read The Neon Rain. Making a note to have another look, given my recent exposure to New Orleans and a thought I've had for a couple of years now to re-read Burke in order.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I can well imagine Bruen giving Jack Taylor some caustic observations on the merits of Galway vs, those of New Orleans, This discussion naturally has me comparing the writers and their protagonists. Seems to me Jack Taylor is Dave Robicheaux with jagged edges, a man for whom alcoholism is just one more in a succession of problems, one of which is a penchant for self-flagellation. And he has a wit about all this, a sense of humor more caustic and self-mocking than Burke's sometimes-surreal wit. Robicheaux, at least in the first half of this first book of a long-running series, is more lyrical about his surroundings and far more matter-of-fact about his own horrible experiences (in Vietnam, in this case) than Jack Taylor could ever be.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linda, have you read Burke? I had not; I bought this because I wanted to read about New Orleans, and Neon Rain seemed to deal most directly with the city of the several Robicheaux novels I flipped through before buying. That makes sense; it's the first in the series. So Burke is a bit of a tour guide as much as he may pretend not to want to be one. I suspect that, like me, you'll get a kick out of mentions of places and phenomena you know. Burke has great with those kids who tap dance for money in the French Quarter, for instance.

And when Burke takes Robicheaux up into Batataria, in the bayou country, I was familiar with the place, because I'd been there the Monday after the convention to look at alligators.And one has to love this explanation of its name:

Barataria is a census-designated place (CDP) in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, United States. The population was 1,109 at the 2010 census.[1] It is part of the New Orleans–Metairie–Kenner Metropolitan Statistical Area. Barataria is the name of the fictional island awarded to Sancho Panza, to govern, as a prank in Part II of Don Quixote.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, Burke is one of those authors that people have long been telling me to read. (The other one is James Sallis. I obviously am underexposed to crime writers named James.) The recommenders would always mention his long, beautiful, lyrical writing and, while that is certainly present in Neon Rain, it does not predominate to the extent I thought it would. What later books in the series do, I don't know.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linda: This book is a spicy bowl of literary gumbo!

Come to think of it, his characters are eating po'boys all the time, even though I'm sure people in New Orleans will sometimes have hamburger, a pizza, or a salad. So Burke was a tour guide whether he wanted to be or not.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Dana King said...

A key difference between Jack Taylor and Dave Robicheaux may be their locations. Taylor (and Bruen) is Irish, with far more dark and introspective personalities than where Robicheaux (and Burke) are from. Not that New Orleans and Louisiana natives don’t have dark thoughts and moments, but the atmosphere in which they live is different.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But you can see where a reader would notice affinities between the characters. What you say certainly holds true for the protagonists.

By pure coincidence, Sharon Shannon, an Irish accordionist whom I think I first encountered playing on versions of "Galway Girl," also plays on a stunning version of "La Danse de la Vie," behind Michael Doucet, the Beausoleil guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVNflpOStGs That makes her a link between Ireland and Louisiana.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
I agree; I see many similarities myself. I only meant to put forth a possible explanation for Taylor's "jagged edges."

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This is the second time a comparison between cajun music and music of Ireland and the British Isles has come up. I posted a clip of a cajun song after I got back from New Orleans, and someone found it reminiscent of jigs and reels.

You're likely right about temperamental differences between Ireland and Louisiana. It's just that I'm not quite ready, after a week in New Orleans, a half-day in the bayou country, and a couple of weeks listening to cajun music to hold forth as an expert on Louisiana's character.

October 04, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linda: I used a favorite word of yours in this post. It just fit.

October 04, 2016  

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