Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Literature: Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke

Father Jimmie Dolan closes his part in James Lee Burke’s Last Car to Elysian Fields by confronting protagonist Detective Dave Robicheaux on his moral blind spots by comparing him with the detective’s tortured and obsessed antagonist in the story, Irish assassin Max Coll:

“Don’t deceive yourself. You’re a violent and driven man, Dave, just like Max Coll.”

Violent and driven. Over the course of 14 novels, Louisiana author James Lee Burke has carefully evolved the crime procedural character Detective Dave Robicheaux from his drunk and fractured genesis as a New Orleans Police Department Homicide detective in Neon Rain to his struggling, AA-reformed, Vietnam-damaged New Iberia Sheriff’s Detective / bait shop owner in In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead to his increasingly violent, almost-spinning-out-of-control deranged late-middle age presence in Last Car to Elysian Fields and Crusader’s Cross. In Burke’s newest tale, Pegasus Descending, Dave Robicheaux readily describes himself in his account of his NOPD partner Clete Purcel,

“He was hated and feared both by the Mob and many of his old colleagues at NOPD. His detractors tried to dismiss him as a drunk and an addict and a whoremonger, but in truth Clete Purcel was one of the most intelligent and decent men I ever knew, complex in ways I could not guess at.”

…complex in ways I could not guess at.

Burke’s Robicheaux is one of the most compelling procedural characters in popular fiction. He is more densely flawed and multidimensional than Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus Bosch or Patricia Cornwell’s Pete Marino in the later Kay Scarpetta novels. Robicheaux lives in the shadow of his past and that past is an almost tangible and temporal entity to him. Early in Pegasus Descending, Robicheaux summons that famous Faulknerian phrase, “…the past is not only still with us, the past is not even the past…” For the troubled Robicheaux, this is certainly true. Burke perfectly captures the emotional landscape of the alcoholic and the alcoholic’s possession by the past. Son of an oil rig roughneck and a mother of questionable scruples (who was mysteriously murdered), Robicheaux has a past to be possessed by. Add to a challenged childhood a soundly horrific experience in country in Vietnam mixed with a deluge of alcohol and one has the makings for quite the dysfunctional cocktail.

Robicheaux’s post Vietnam experience is littered with ex-wives, friends, burned bridges, lost jobs, and empty bottles. His recovery is littered with broken bluebloods, mobsters, and miscreants who crossed the detective’s idea of his junkie honor. Once sober, the universe that is Robicheaux’s anger blossoms into a contempt for the decadent well-heeled society that he feels puts itself above all else. This anger fuels his history and prophecy of violence and this behavior affects every relationship he has. Father Jimmie Dolan’s psychological evaluation of Robicheaux turns kinetically predictive. Robicheaux is not so much self-righteous as he is limbicly motivated. There is something primal in his motivations and this makes his violence that much more vicious, not sadistic, but Old Testament justified. He often disappoints his boss, Sheriff Helen Soileau and his best friend Clete Purcel, while presenting a challenge to his new wife, the former Maryknoll Nun Molly Boyle Robicheaux.

This past and violence exist like the landscape in Pegasus Descending. The story is a complex one where the present day Robicheaux collides with the same 20 years previous. The detective is faced with a 20-year-old murder of an armored car driver in Florida, a year old hit-and-run homicide of a vagrant, and the recent rape and murder of one Yvonne Darbonne, a university coed. Add to the mix the recent arrival of the dead armored car driver’s daughter (who chooses Clete Purcel as her punch) and the men who killed him into the Louisiana gambling establishment (not coincidentally) and the reader has a classic Robicheaux yarn.

Dave Robicheaux has a variety of struggles in this book. He feuds with one Bellerophon Lujan, whose son is linked to the dead girl Yvonne Darbonne and the Slim Bruxal, the son of Whitey Bruxal, alleged murderer (along with the gleefully amoral button-man Lefty Raguza) of the armored car driver. He punches out the county prosecuting attorney, who has higher political office in mind and the backs of the Iberia County Sheriff’s Department as a stepping stone. Is the reader beginning to get the idea?

This story is more littered with bodies than the typical Robicheaux offering. Dave and Clete are well down the road of emotional self-immolation, a dysfunctional ying-yang pair, unraveling at every hem. Purcel descends into his alcohol-fueled self-destruction and Robicheaux slowly corrodes on his own acidic bile. The result for the reader is a fascination that can only be quelled by more stories of these two noble, yet horribly flawed, protagonists. These are the good guys but this is not always so clear. Pegasus Descending is a great read, leaving the reader on edge for the detective’s response to Hurricane Katrina, The Tin Roof Blowdown, to be released July 2007.

This review was first published in Blogcritics.org

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006