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The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 14 comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

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