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Sometimes, surviving the day can be enough
on September 18, 2001
If the axiom ‘Write what you know’ is at all true, then James Lee Burke must have some truly frightening skeletons in his closet. It isn’t so much the subject matter, as it is the passion and intensity with which he pours the narrative onto the page. Burke’s characters live and breathe corruption, and ignorance, and violence, in a manner most of us would scarcely think possible. But he draws us in, into a world so vividly sketched that part of our being yearns to visit it again and again.
A SHINING WHITE RADIANCE is vintage Burke, another steamy and scintillating exploration of crime and corruption in New Orleans. His familiar hero, world-weary police detective Dave Robicheaux, is unwillingly enveloped in the twisted lives of the Sonniers, a local family with a history so unnerving that it’s a wonder any of them got out alive. Following the brutal slaying of a police officer in Weldon Sonnier’s home, Robicheaux is swiftly sped along a road of clues and red herrings, stopping at various points to involve late-night tele-evangelists, local crime bosses, past loves, Air America, drugs, and the AB (Aryan Brotherhood).
Burke has so far (as far as my readings of the Robicheaux novels are concerned) avoided the pitfalls that can trap the author of an ongoing series. The temptation must be great to simply graft a plot around the characters, and let it all just slide by. Burke takes the effort needed to not insult his readership, never content to let the characters simply act as they have in the past. Burke comes up with new ways to reintroduce us to the characters, allowing for new developments that expand what we thought we new about his universe. Robicheaux’s past experiences in Vietnam are brought in as integral elements of the story, not simply ‘character filler’. His deep self-loathing for past mistakes, his never-ceasing battle with personal demons (both internal and external), and his ceaselessly evolving relationship with his wife Bootsie, adopted child Alafair, close friend Batist, and even closer friend Clete Purcel, keep the tale rooted in reality.
Burke can also compose one fine episode of menace after another. Just watch Robicheaux’s prison-cell conversation with Joey Gouza. Burke teases the reader, never showing his hand too early, and climaxes the scene with a harrowing interlude of incipient violence. The vignette is all the more striking for its lack of outward activity. The suspense is completely internalized, and mesmerizing. Only afterwards to you realize that you’ve been holding your breath.
Burke can also pen descriptive and atmospheric language with the best of them. His characters all speak with the accent of local patois, adding to the laid-back (but not lazy) environment of Burke’s New Orleans. His finesse with the undercurrent of racism permeates every moment, and his depictions of the backwoods swamps and seedy taverns are vivid. Maybe this New Orleans doesn’t exist in real life, but it feels like it does.
Does it all wrap up satisfyingly? No. After all the set-up, the promising situations, and the pacing that is both leisurely and break-neck, the ultimate denouement is somewhat lacking. But in context, perhaps it’s the only ending that would fit. As Robicheaux himself comes to understand, not everything in life is fair, and not everyone gets what they deserve. Evil will continue, but so will good. How we react to it, deal with it, is what defines us. If we’re still standing at the end of the day, then we’ve won.