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The Lost Get-Back Boogie: A Novel by [James Lee Burke, Christine Wiltz]

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The Lost Get-Back Boogie: A Novel Kindle Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 350 ratings

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This wonderful novel about a Korean War veteran released in the '60s from a Louisiana prison farm where he served a term for manslaughter is neither roman tic nor cynical in its realism. Loner Iry Paret, a country-and-western musician, has survived two years of hacks, trustees and dangerous inmates, not with hope but with a dull, gloomy attentiveness that has written hardship's effects all over him. Once he is paroled, he drinks liquor as if it were a tonic, but even drinking brings no joy. He travels to a fellow prisoner's ranch, and as he heads west, the air clears. His involvement with his acid-dropping pal Buddy Rior dan, Buddy's stoical ex-cowboy father (who feuds with a foul-odored pulpmill) and Buddy's estranged wife, Beth, tugs him between adjustment to straight life and the battles that may send him back to jail. Although the ending strays, this latest novel by the author of The Convict is pensive and cautiously paced. It also contrasts two very different parts of the essence of Americathe hazy bayou and a resolute valley in the beautiful West.
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.
--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

The captain was silhouetted on horseback like a piece of burnt iron against the sun. The brim of his straw hat was pulled low to shade his sun-darkened face, and he held the sawed-off double-barrel shotgun with the stock propped against his thigh to avoid touching the metal. We swung our axes into the roots of tree stumps, our backs glistening and brown and arched with vertebrae, while the chain saws whined into the felled trees and lopped them off into segments. Our Clorox-faded, green-and-white-pinstripe trousers were stained at the knees with sweat and the sandy dirt from the river bottom, and the insects that boiled out of the grass stuck to our skin and burrowed into the wet creases of our necks. No one spoke, not even to caution a man to step back from the swing of an ax or the roaring band of a McCulloch saw ripping in a white spray of splinters through a stump. The work was understood and accomplished with the smoothness and certitude and rhythm that come from years of learning that it will never have a variation. Each time we hooked the trace chains on a stump, slapped the reins across the mules' flanks, and pulled it free in one snapping burst of roots and loam, we moved closer to the wide bend of the Mississippi and the line of willow trees and dappled shade along the bank.

"OK, water and piss it," the captain said.

We dropped the axes, prizing bars, and shovels, and followed behind the switching tail of the captain's horse down to the willows and the water can that sat in the tall grass with the dipper hung on the side by its ladle. The wide, brown expanse of the river shimmered flatly in the sun, and on the far bank, where the world of the free people began, white egrets were nesting in the sand. The Mississippi was almost a half mile across at that point, and there was a story among the Negro convicts that during the forties a one-legged trusty named Wooden Unc had whipped a mule into the river before the bell count on Camp H and had held on to his tail across the current to the other side. But the free people said Wooden Unc was a nigger's myth; he was just a syphilitic old man who had had his leg amputated at the charity hospital at New Orleans and who later went blind on julep (a mixture of molasses, shelled corn, water, yeast, and lighter fluid that the Negroes would boil in a can on the radiator overnight) and fell into the river and drowned under the weight of the artificial leg given him by the state. And I believed the free people, because I never knew or heard of anyone who beat Angola.

We rolled cigarettes from our state issue of Bugler and Virginia Extra tobacco and wheat-straw papers, and those who had sent off for the dollar-fifty rolling machines sold by a mail-order house in Memphis took out their Prince Albert cans of neatly glued and clipped cigarettes that were as good as tailor-mades. There was still a mineral-streaked piece of ice floating in the water can, and we spilled the dipper over our mouths and chests and let the coldness of the water run down inside our trousers. The captain gave his horse to one of the Negroes to take into the shallows, and sat against a tree trunk with the bowl of his pipe cupped in his hand, which rested on the huge bulge of his abdomen below his cartridge belt. He wore no socks under his half-topped boots, and the area above his ankles was hairless and chafed a dead, shaling color.

He lived in a small frame cottage by the front gate with the other free people, and each twilight he returned home to a cancer-ridden, hard-shell Baptist wife from Mississippi who taught Bible lessons to the Sunday school class in the Block. In the time I was on his gang, I saw him kill one convict, a half-wit Negro kid who had been sent up from the mental hospital at Mandeville. We were breaking a field down by the Red Hat House, and the boy dropped the plow loops off his wrists and began to walk across the rows toward the river. The captain shouted at him twice from the saddle, then raised forward on the pommel, aimed, and let off the first barrel. The boy's shirt jumped at the shoulder, as though the breeze had caught it, and he kept walking across the rows with his unlaced boots flopping on his feet like galoshes. The captain held the stock tight into his shoulder and fired again, and the boy tripped forward across the rows with a single jet of scarlet bursting out just below his kinky, uncut hairline.

A pickup truck driven by one of the young hacks rolled in a cloud of dust down the meandering road through the fields toward me. The rocks banged under the fenders, and the dust coated the stunted cattails in the irrigation ditches. I put out my Virginia Extra cigarette against the sole of my boot and stripped the paper down the glued seam and let the tobacco blow apart in the wind.

"I reckon that's your walking ticket, Iry," the captain said.

The hack slowed the truck to a stop next to the Red Hat House and blew his horn. I took my shirt off the willow branch where I had left it at eight-o'clock field count that morning.

"How much money you got coming on discharge?" the captain said.

"About forty-three dollars."

"You take this five and send it to me, and you keep your ass out of here."

"That's all right, boss."

"Hell it is. You'll be sleeping in the Sally after you run your money out your pecker on beer and women."

I watched him play his old self-deluding game, with the green tip of a five-dollar bill showing above the laced edge of his convict-made wallet. He splayed over the bill section of the wallet with his thick thumb and held it out momentarily, then folded it again in his palm. It was his favorite ritual of generosity when a convict earned good time on his gang and went back on the street.

"Well, just don't do nothing to get violated back to the farm, Iry," he said.

I shook hands with him and walked across the field to the pickup truck. The hack turned the truck around, and we rolled down the baked and corrugated road through the bottom section of the farm toward the Block. I looked through the back window and watched the ugly, squat white building called the Red Hat House grow smaller against the line of willows on the river. It was named during the thirties when the big stripes (the violent and the insane) were kept there. In those days, before the Block with its lock-down section was built, the dangerous ones wore black-and-white-striped jumpers and straw hats that were painted red. When they went in at night from the fields, they had to strip naked for a body search and their clothes were thrown into the building after them. Later, the building came to house the electric chair, and someone had painted in broken letters on one wall: THIS IS WHERE THEY KNOCK THE FIRE OUT OF YOUR ASS.

We drove through the acres of new corn, sugar cane, and sweet potatoes, the squared sections and weedless rows mathematically perfect, each thing in its ordered and predesigned place, past Camp H and its roofless and crumbling stone buildings left over from the Civil War, past the one-story rows of barracks on Camp I, then the shattered and weed-grown block of concrete slab in an empty field by Camp A where the two iron sweatboxes had been bulldozed out in the early fifties. I closed off the hot stream of air through the wind vane and rolled a cigarette.

"What are you going to do outside?" the hack said. He chewed gum, and his lean sun-tanned face and washed-out blue eyes looked at me flatly with his question. His starched khaki short sleeves were folded in a neat cuff above his biceps. As a new guard he had the same status among us as a fish, a convict just beginning his first fall.

"I haven't thought about it yet," I said.

"There's plenty of work if a man wants to do it." His eyes were young and mean, and there was just enough of that north Louisiana Baptist righteousness in his voice to make you pause before you spoke again.

"I've heard that."

"It don't take long to get your ass put back in here if you ain't working," he said.

I licked the glued seam of the cigarette paper, folded it down under my thumb, and crimped the ends.

"You got a match, boss?"

His eyes looked over my face, trying to peel through the skin and reach inside the insult of being called a title that was given only to the old hacks who had been on the farm for years. He took a kitchen match from his shirt pocket and handed it to me.

I popped the match on my fingernail and drew in on the suck of flame and glue and the strong black taste of Virginia Extra. We passed the prison cemetery with its faded wooden markers and tin cans of withered flowers and the grave of Alton Bienvenu. He did thirty-three years in Angola and had the record for time spent in the sweatbox on Camp A (twenty-two days in July with space only large enough for the knees and buttocks to collapse against the sides and still hold a man in an upright position, a slop bucket set between the ankles and one air hole the diameter of a cigar drilled in the iron door). He died in 1957, three years before I went in, but even when I was in the fish tank (the thirty days of processing and classification in lock-down you go through before you enter the main population), I heard about the man who broke out twice when he was a young bindle stiff, took the beatings in solitary and the anthill treatment on the levee gang, and later as an old man worked paroles through an uncle in the state legislature for other convicts when he had none coming himself, taught reading to illiterates, had morphine tablets smuggled back from the prison section of the charity hospital in New Orleans for a junkie who was going to fry, and testified before a governor's board in Baton Rouge about the reasons that convicts on Angola farm slashed the tendons in their ankles. After his death he was canonized in the prison's group legend with a saint's aura rivaled only by a Peter, crucified upside down in a Roman arena with his shackles still stretched between his legs.

The mound of Alton Bienvenu's grave was covered with a ...

--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B00CTVKVSO
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ LSU Press (September 1, 2004)
  • Publication date ‏ : ‎ September 1, 2004
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 2618 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Not Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 262 pages
  • Lending ‏ : ‎ Not Enabled
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.5 out of 5 stars 350 ratings

About the author

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James Lee Burke is a New York Times bestselling author, two-time winner of the Edgar Award, and the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in Fiction. He’s authored thirty-seven novels and two short story collections. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

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4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5
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