Southern Lit–James Lee Burke’s "Pegasus Descending"
I first heard about James Lee Burke back in 1992, when my buddy Todd Scott pointed me in the direction of a book entitled In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead. You saddle a book with a title like that, you’d better deliver some epic-level Southern fiction. And Burke does exactly that, year after year, book after book. His latest, Pegasus Descending, is typical Burke–which is to say that it’s a melange of southern Louisiana lowlifes, byzantine plot twists, the chokehold that the past holds on the present, and healthy dollops of Catholic imagery counterpointed by scenes of stunning violence. In short, it’s the best damn “detective fiction” out these days, and I’d put it toe-to-toe with most “literary” fiction as well.
Burke’s protagonist, Detective Dave Robicheaux, marks his 15th book with Pegasus. In this installment, he’s working out his guilt for being too drunk to rescue a friend when an early-70s Miami bank heist went awry. Now, in 2005, the friend’s daughter shows up in New Iberia, Louisiana, where–conveniently enough–the man Dave suspects was behind his friend’s death now lives in wealth and comfort. From there, the book whirls through New Iberia society, from drug-slingers to rich frat kids, from casinos to churches. And it all culminates in blood just as Hurricane Katrina roars ashore.
Having an impending storm symbolize a coming crisis is a hack device used by damn near every writer you can imagine–including this clown–but Burke manages to make it seem fresh and new. For instance, check this section, Dave’s recollection of Hurricane Audrey coming ashore when he was young and working on an oil derrick in the Gulf:
There was no sound at all. The wind stopped, the water around the drill barge flattened, then seemed to drop away from the steel pilings, as though all the water were being sucked out of the bay. The gum and cypres trees and willows along the shore straightened in the stillness, their leaves green and bright with sunshine, then the world came apart.
All the glass exploded from the windows in the pilothouse. The instrument shack, made of aluminum and bolted down on the stern, was shredded into confetti. The crew chief was shouting at everyone on the deck, pointing toward the hatch that led down to the engine room, but his words were lost in the roar of the wind. A curtain of rain slapped across the barge, then we were inside a vortex that looked exactly like millions of crystallized grass cuttings, except it was filled with objects and creatures that should not have been there. Fish of every kind and size, snakes, raccoons, blue herons, turkey buzzards, a pirogue, uprooted trees, possums and wood rabbits, a twisted tin roof, dozens of crab trabs and conical fishnets packed with enormous carp, hundreds of frogs, clusters of tar paper and weathered boards–all these things were spinning around our barge, sometimes thudding against the handrails and ladders and bulkheads.
Tell me you’re not right there with him.
In the same way, he takes the devices he uses throughout every single novel–lush description of the Louisiana bayous, Dave’s ever-present penchant for alcohol-fueled violence, the portentous dreams, the way damn near everybody Dave ever knew in his life ends up in New Iberia trailing a boatload of problems–and still makes the old seem new. It’s familiar territory, but it’s still worth reading, every single time.
Oh, and Burke comes up with the coolest names imaginable, book after book. Somebody needs to make a list of these evocative handles; “Pegasus” includes Bellerophon Lujan, Yvonne and Cesaire Darbonne, Wee Willie Bimstine, Nig Rosewater, Prospect Desmoreau, Monarch Little, and Whitey and Slim Bruxal. Whew.