Southern Lit: "The Night Johnny Ace Died," James Lee Burke

If you consider yourself any kind of knowledgeable reader–or any kind of writer at all–you need to check out James Lee Burke, the reigning king of Southern crime lit. I’ve written about his Dave Robicheaux novels before; check this link for my thoughts on that series.

He’s also a damn talented short story writer, and he’s got a collection called “Jesus Out To Sea” coming out this summer. I’m assuming his latest, “The Night Johnny Ace Died,” will be in it, but in the meantime, you can get it for free by clicking right here and going to Esquire.com to read it.

“Johnny Ace” is the story of a couple of rockabilly musicians in the ’50s who sit right on the cusp of breakout and crossover success–they’re white and planning to record with black singing star Johnny Ace, but this is how the story begins:

He and Big Mama Thornton were taking a break backstage when it happened. The dance floor was covered with Mexican and black people, a big haze of cigarette and reefer smoke floating over their heads in the spotlights. White people were up in the balcony, mostly low-rider badasses wearing pegged drapes and needle-nose stomps and girls who could do the dirty bop and manage to look bored while they put your flopper on autopilot. Then we heard it, one shot, pow, like a small firecracker. Johnny’s dressing-room door was partly opened and I swear I saw blood fly across the wall, just before people started running in all directions.

And with Johnny dead–either by his own hand or from outside forces, we don’t know–it all goes downhill from there. In just a few thousand words, Burke packs in a novel’s worth of heartache, longing, betrayal, desire, and regret, plus an appearance by Elvis himself (referred to here only as “The Greaser”).
Whether you like Burke’s brand of florid, over-the-top description probably depends on whether you’re the kind of person who groans in delight or pain when Mom brings another overstuffed plate of food to the Thanksgiving table. Still, for all his rhetorical excesses, you can’t deny that Burke’s got some serious chops:

You know the secret to being a rockabilly or country music celebrity? It’s not just the sequins on your clothes and the needle-nose, mirror-shined boots. Your music has to be full of sorrow, I mean just like the blood-flecked broken body of Jesus on the cross. When people go to the Assembly of God church and look up at that cross, the pain they see there isn’t in Jesus’ body; it’s in their own lives. I’m talking about droughts, dust storms, mine blowouts, black-lung disease, or pulling cotton bolls or breaking corn till the tips of their fingers bleed. I went to school with kids who wore clothes sewn from Purina feed sacks…What I’m trying to say is, we come from a class of people who think of misery as a given. They just want somebody who’s had a degree of success to treat them with respect.

Good stuff. Click the link, take 15 minutes and check it out. How many times can you see someone getting kicked in the junk on YouTube, anyway?
Jay

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