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Old 13th Feb 2004, 11:35   #1
amner
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Default Book 9: THE CONVICT & OTHER... by JAMES LEE BURK

Please note, this is the March choice for a read (thus, April's book for debate).
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I know we've not even begun on The Namesake yet, but a bit of advance notice should give us all the chance to catch up over the next few weeks. Cheers.

EDIT: somewhat annoyingly, you can read all but the last 3 pages of the first story here.
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Old 5th Apr 2004, 14:54   #2
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If I knew anything about American literature, I might well find that James Lee burke is part of a tradition, one markedly different from that which a British audience might well be used to. Certainly there is little in the way of intellectualism in Burke, no detachment at all, and he eschews any "cleverness" of narrative.

What he gives you instead, is a good story well told, ostensibly about ordinary people in the oftimes ordinary binds that we find ourselves to be in. His themes are the virtues of an old-fashioned America, one that probably doesn't exist anymore: masculinity, rugged individualism, loyalty and family, place and upbringing, and the redemptive power of simple human decency. Equally, he isn't afraid to look at the flaws either, and touches on issues of racism, war and the disparity of wealth and opportunity that the society he is a part of fosters.

This simplicity - even cliche - masks a writer who has more than a little craft. His characters are vivid, often flawed and deeply embedded in the landscape and history of the South of America. It can't be easy to write about a state (and region) that has such an ambivalent history, but Burke manages it without preaching, nor without apologising for the many contentious issues he touches upon.

Choosing a favourite story from a collection is bound to be a personal thing, but I particularly like the first story, "Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans", "Taking a Second Look" and "Winter Light". The first two feature an overlap of the worlds of the adult and child, but from different perspectives; the last two, damaged people who are trying to find ways to deal with the consequences that their lives have invested upon them. All of them illustrate Burke's clear view on humanity: that we are flawed, but for all that, we deserve the respect and tolerance of our fellow beings.

In his novels, Burke develops many of the themes seen in this collection of short stories, but he writes too much to be a "great" author. Still, I enjoy his books, and that ultimately is what seems to matter to me when I have so little time to sit and read...
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Old 5th Apr 2004, 15:11   #3
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I thought Losses was terrific. His sympathy ranged all over the place; eschewing the simple criticisms of harsh punishment meted out by the nuns at the school (which would just have been too easy), he somehow managed, in a few short sentences, to open out the story to encompass the wide world beyond Claude's New Iberian horizons.

He tipped the lot into that 11 page story; the callowness of youth, the cruelty of our peers, loyalty, the downright awkwardness of being a teenager, an unknown war, death, love, blah blah, etc. A very fine and touching read. I've been over it three or four times now and I see something new in it each time.

Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans was great, I agree, Notty. Made you feel hot and uncomfortable almost immediately.
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Old 8th Apr 2004, 15:20   #4
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The objective part of my mind agrees with you guys, the subjective is ploughing on and counting down the pages to the end - 30. But I believe the fault is with my idiosyncrasies as a reader, not with the book.
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Old 8th Apr 2004, 17:27   #5
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Well, do tell all when you finish, idiosyncarasies notwithstanding, m.
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Old 7th Jun 2004, 11:33   #6
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It's a shame this discussion never really got going, because I think JLB looks like a really interesting guy. Here's a recent interview:

Quote:
Bayou tapestry

Through his Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, author James Lee Burke brings the sluggish heat, twisted landscapes and booze-soaked no-hopers of Louisiana into vibrant relief. Here, he talks to Euan Ferguson about good and evil, being drunk and sober, and why his new novel is not about crime
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The evening sky was streaked with purple, the colour of torn plums, and a light rain had begun to fall when Dave Robicheaux walked into the world. It was late in 1985, half-way down the opening page of The Neon Rain , and the Cajun police detective was entering Louisiana's infamous Angola Penitentiary to visit a loser on death row who had an appointment with the chair at midnight. 'He was just a low-level button man I used to run in once in a while,' he tells the guard. 'In fact, I think he screwed up more jobs than he pulled off. Maybe he got into the mob through Affirmative Action.'
Within a page, one of America's most compelling literary creations had been born. Compassionate, articulate, with a wit as dry and wayward as a dust-devil; haunted by his constant struggle against alcoholism and his capacity for sudden, violent, self-destructive retribution against the various exploitative pieces of psychopathic pond-life who run Louisiana, Dave Robicheaux has been compared to Chandler's Philip Marlowe. His creator James Lee Burke has, in turn, been likened to both William Faulkner and Graham Greene.

Jim Burke, as he likes to be called in person, is the gentlest of men, as he shakes my hand on his porch in New Iberia, a backwater parish in Louisiana, in a fine wooden home rich with glass to catch the soft light dripping through the live-oaks and Spanish moss that drape the Bayou Teche outside. Now 67, he has given the world 11 novels featuring Robicheaux and his partner, Cletus Purcel, a lurid priapic Irish slugger stuck forever sweating beneath his tiny blue porkpie hat. There is talk of an HBO series which would almost certainly make Dave Robicheaux as much of a household name as Tony Soprano or The West Wing 's Jed Bartlet; excited talk, among aficionados, of Tommy Lee Jones for the role.

But Burke has also given the world Louisiana as a literary character. Its cottonmouth snakes and cypresses, snow egrets and flamingoes and night-blooming flowers; shrimp on ice and dirty rice and oyster po-boys; and burning fields of sugar-cane sending out lazy smoke to further blur the fading pink grandeur of the antebellum South. And, of course, the snakes with legs: the absurd pomades and grease-pencil moustaches of the New Orleans wise guys; the grifters and murphy artists and hucksters and snake-oil salesmen who get caught in the dust of the system; and the sleek pimps and fattened lawyers who skate clear. The names - Zipper Clum, and Vachel Carmouche, and Emile Pogue, and Sweet Pea Chaisson - which are so swift to evoke the extraordinary racial mix that has shaped the state and its morals: the Acadian French, ousted from Nova Scotia by the British, who settled in this inhospitable swamp and gave us Cajun culture; and the French-Caribbean mix that gave us Creole; and the dark Haitian superstitions, the gris-gris and loupgarous. It's a terrible, beautiful mix of a place, all high ideals and low cunning, beauty and pain, sex and death and searing contradictions, and it is perhaps no accident that it was here, at the time of the War Between the States, that one of the world's loveliest of flowers, the white camelia, became the symbol of one of the most vicious and foolish groups of white supremacists ever known. 'Louisiana?' repeats Burke, shaking his head before quoting from one of his Robicheaux novels, Jolie Blon's Bounce. 'As so often, Dave says it better than I do. "To become emotionally involved with Louisiana is like falling in love with the biblical whore of Babylon."'

And, always, the weather. The first 20 words of this article are the first 20 of The Neon Rain . The book ends, after 240 pages of rednecks and torture and cold humour and vengeance: 'The fall sky was such a hard blue you could have struck a match against it, the yellow light so soft it might have been aged inside oak' - just as every significant episode is bookended by the weather, the ever-changing moods of the Louisiana horizon act as pathetic fallacy to the very Southern goings-on in between.

Chandler's trick, when stuck for plot, was to 'have a man walk into the room holding a gun'. Burke's is to look at the sky. When the action stops and a chapter begins with Robicheaux telling us simply, say, 'It stormed that night. The sky above the Gulf danced with heat lightning, white sheets of it that rippled silently through hundreds of miles of thunderheads in the wink of an eye,' then you know that inside he's being pushed to the edge by black circumstance and rich lowlifes and it won't be long before he hears a sound like wet newspapers ripping in his head and goes off the deep end.

It's a style of writing which has made Burke particularly accessible to non-crime fans. Most of his readers are now women, although, as he points out with his Gatling-gun of a laugh, 90 per cent of book-buyers in America are female. It also exposes what an increasing number of literary critics are now denouncing as a false line between crime fiction and the literary novel, an argument that has run since the time of Chandler. Bertolt Brecht was exercised enough by the distinction to write: 'If someone cries, "The same old thing again!" when he realises that a tenth of all murders take place in a churchyard, then he has not understood the crime novel. He might as well cry, "The same old thing again!" in the theatre when the curtain rises.' The Maltese Falcon was heavily influenced by Henry James's The Wings of the Dove , although Hammett was laughed out of the bar when he first mentioned this to Thurber. Burke has written successful non-crime novels as well, so he is not arguing from a defensive position, but says, simply, 'More and more critics are coming to realise that the sociological novel, as it was at the end of the 19th century and during the Depression, has been reborn as the crime novel.

'And there are historical parallels. Robicheaux's antecedents are in Elizabethan tragedy, in Shakespeare, Marlowe; in Chaucer's Good Knight. And the fact that Dave and Clete are opposite sides of the same coin takes us back to Cervantes, to the concept of the idealist and his travelling companion. Clete, who's based on a guy I knew, gets even for the rest of us. George Orwell talks of the necessary presence of the fool in us, the harlequin, and the fact that if we don't give him freedom and rein then a far more injurious revenge will follow.' Which is pretty much what happens whenever Clete is incapacitated, in the drunk-tank or lock-up and unable to exact his harlequin's revenge, and Robicheaux loses it instead in a far more biblical fashion. And, along the way, the interplay between the two becomes one of the most fascinating aspects of the books, Burke using their conversations to illustrate points that a third-person voice might have rendered too preachy. So, taken almost at random, here's Dave warning his friend against drowning his sorrows. 'Your skin's crawling because a shithead had you in his crosshairs. Booze only tattoos the fear into your sleep.' Or, in Burning Angel , when Clete touches on race with a throwaway comment: 'They say if you're ever black on Saturday night, you'll never want to be white again.' Robicheaux replies, 'You usually hear white people say that after they shortchange the yardman.'

One of the lessons Burke says he wants to get across, continually, is about violence. 'Yes, Dave Robicheaux will lose it, badly. But one of the lessons he always conveys to the reader, without exception, is that violence is a defeat for everyone involved. And I would not say, in the end, that they are angry books. The recognition of evil in the world is not, in itself, an angry or a violent emotion. By evil I mean true evil, which normally comes from power. Not every criminal is evil, far from it, as Dave knows, and conveys.

'Dave always indicated that the people he's never been allowed to turn the key on are the slumlords, people on zoning boards who only allow porn shops to be opened in poor neighbourhoods, all those in power who destroy the quality and integrity of life an any area.

'Most of our problems come of course from money. From sex and power, too, but if you've got money you can buy sex and you can buy power. And powerful people are different from the rest of us morally. This is the most powerful nation on earth, and it is also the most violent nation on earth. We get worried at violence in films and books, and yet we are the greatest providers of ordnance on the planet! Clinton exported more weaponry than Reagan and Bush, making fortunes for companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton. That is violence, to profit from another's suffering. Power without conscience. And that's typified in this land by the extractive industries, cutting down 200-year-old trees, pouring garbage into the bayou. Although at least those people have taught me one lesson in life: when people say, "This is not about money," then it's about money. Here, in Louisiana, we should all just leave for 10 years, let angry nature sweep back in.' He ends his gentle rant with choking laughter, and leads me away from power and corruption to meet his wife of 40 years, Pearl, and show me the many pictures of his children, including his daughter Alafair, who has her own first novel out soon.

Burke's writing career - inspired particularly by his cousin, the late short-story writer Andre Dubus - has been far from textbook. His first novel, Half of Paradise, was published in the 60s, way before Robicheaux was born or thought of. He had three books published, to quiet acclaim, by the time he was 33, and thought he was 'cooking on butane'. He then wrote The Lost Get-Back Boogie, an astonishing book in many ways. It disappeared into the system for a decade, garnering what is thought to be a US record of 111 rejection letters. His drinking, always heavy, became fully fledged alcoholism.

His agent Philip Spitzer, who was driving a cab in Hell's Kitchen when they first met, was growing increasingly despairing of finding a publisher for Burke's work ever again. 'Eventually,' laughs Burke, 'the book came back to me at a time when I had entered sobriety. I edited it and cut it, cut 80 pages. I also had to completely retype it, because the original manuscript was so beat-up with glass-rings and stub-marks: it looked like people had spent nine years cleaning their shoes with it.' It was published, finally, by the tiny Louisiana State University Press. It was swiftly nominated for a Pulitzer. Many feel it is still his best, if bleakest, book. And, around then, he began a page where the evening sky was streaked with purple, and Robicheaux was born, and Burke's world began to change forever.

Although, in truth, it had begun to change fairly massively anyway. He had, as he says, entered sobriety, having joined a small legion of fine American writers, including his crime contemporaries Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy, hauled perilously close to the edge by the bottle. Pete Hamill writes trenchantly about entering sobriety when he says, in A Drinking Life, 'I began to type pages of private notes, reminding myself that writers were rememberers and I had already forgotten material for 20 novels. For years I'd been squeezing my talent out of a toothpaste tube.' Or there's the notorious cirrhotic F Scott Fitzgerald, referring to it more obliquely in The Great Gatsby: 'One night I did hear a material car there, and saw its lights stop at his front steps. But I didn't investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn't know that the party was over.'

Burke will not tell me exactly when he bottomed out, other than the year, 1977. He does not want to go into details about the low point, the jag that ended all jags; he will only say: 'There is a moment when your old life is not enough. If that moment does not arrive, then you will end up in a mental institution, or in jail, or in the grave. It has to be a moment when you say I don't want this any more. It's when you're sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. And when you change, you change fast.

'In our 12-step programme, the Big Book defines alcoholism as self-will run riot in a form of psychological and moral insanity. It need not even involve alcohol, strangely enough: there are people we refer to as white-knuckle alcoholics. They don't drink. But they still have the black electricity flowing through them. They are still eaten by fear. We believe that alcohol is just the symptom of the illness, whether you drink or not - look at some of our leading politicians. I have little doubt that an untreated alcoholic, even one who doesn't drink, offers far more danger than a wet drunk. But if you are there, and you admit it, and you eventually beat it, life will turn around in minutes . The air is better, the sun is better, and you have so much time, because of all the old things you don't have to do any more. People in 12-step groups constantly surprise me. To stand up in front of a group of 150 people and tell them of your physical, your moral low point... I think they are the bravest people.'

He might not drink, but he remembers the drink. Every paragraph which features both drink and Clete, the side that lets Dave/Burke do all the things he did before entering sobriety, gleams with the author's relationship with booze. 'Clete took a long-necked bottle of Dixie from the cooler and snapped off the top with his pocketknife. The foam slid down the inside of the neck when he removed the bottle from his mouth. Then he drank again, his throat working overtime... the sunlight looked like a yellow flame inside the bottle.' I don't think you could argue that this typical passage, nor the tiny details that accompany any drinking session, the frosted schooners and shot glasses of Seagram's whiskey, are not being written with as much love as hate; and, with a phlegmatic shrug, Burke accepts that he cannot fully detest what he once was. 'Things don't change as much as we grow into what we've always been. As bad as the lives we've had, we wouldn't be the people we are today without them.'

Hours have passed, and our conversation has ranged from the forthcoming war - he's strongly against - to his favourite fiction: Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Graham Greene: 'One of the great masters of all time. The Quiet American - boy , did he see what was coming!' Wheezing with laughter, he leads me out to the bayou where I can smoke - he's stopped that, as well - and we talk finally about his newest book, out this week, White Doves at Morning , which he describes as, 'The book I have always wanted to write.' It is classic Burke, although it's not Robicheaux; Doves is a tale of the War Between the States, and Jim Burke's own relatives, whose war diaries he still has. It's a fine read, encompassing half of the confused history and morals of the South, in the days when the Angola Penitentiary was the equally notorious Angola Plantation; it's also the perfect introduction to that war, and to slavery, and to Burke.

And he hasn't forgotten Dave. Far from it; in his study, he is just finishing the next Robicheaux novel: his monitor flickers with what will, literally, be the last two pages.

'I don't know until the last two or three pages how the book will end,' he laughs. 'With this one, I woke up at 1.30 yesterday morning and had in my head the last scene. So I'll finish that, when you've gone, and then maybe have a two-week gap, and start another. I love to write.' Did he often re-read his books, years on? 'When I read back, my books all seem different to how I had remembered; I don't recall writing that prose. It can be a good feeling; I recognise the worth of a line more after some time has passed. I never feel regrets; everything I've done was the best I could come up with at the time.'

He leaves for a few minutes, and I am sorely tempted to sneak a glance at the screen. There are friends who would keep me in frosted schooners for many weeks for a snippet of unpublished Burke; but this, I suspect, is not a man who gives his trust lightly, and it will not be broken. And I know, anyway, that somewhere in those pages, as the plot twists to a close and a flawed justice settles, heat-lightning will be breaking above the Gulf and a flamingo will rise from the distant Atchafalaya basin, the beat of its wings in the rain as silent and as timeless as heartbreak.
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Old 12th Jun 2004, 20:42   #7
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Thanks for that, amner, very interesting and something I hadn't seen.
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Old 14th Jun 2004, 2:51   #8
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I tried a couple of times to write something for this thread, but what I wrote always sounded wrong to me. I invariably started with "I didn't dislike this book", and maybe this explains my problems. To write an opinion, it's better to have more emotional attitude than this, especially that The Convict is an honest and straightforward book that doesn't give one much field for muddling ground and highfalutin analyzing. In my last post here I simply meant that I usually have hard time with short stories - I read them painfully slowly and quite often I don't enjoy them immediately, but only some time later. I have also this idea that simple realism isn't for short stories. As a teenager, and actually later too (BTW I'm 29) I read quite a lot of sci-fi, and much of this was short stories; I think that's how I've got this notion that good short stories always push the limits, either in terms of the world creation or language (I'm wary of linguistic experiments in novels but I kind of welcome them in short stories.) Or they have very unusual POV, or at least some kind of twist, a killer ending, anything, but not normal narration with normal people - this is for novels.

Generally, in this collection I preferred the stories focused on young characters to those about adults - that is Uncle Sidney and Mexicans, Losses and The Convict. The Convict was my favourite; much as I liked Uncle Sidney and Mexicans I thought the ending fell flat. The Pilot irritated me… Taking a Second Look had to overcome my prejudice against baseball - I know it’s not about baseball, but even though I'm not a great fan of team sports in general, I would enjoy it more if the featured sport was football (soccer) or basket… (OK this was petty, and I have to admit that this story actually made me think for a while - on surface it seems that there is some kind of happy ending, two alienated persons befriending each other, but I'd say it's a rather toxic relationship for the boy.) The war stories… In general sometimes I like, more often I don't. Here, I appreciated manly restraint in face of war atrocities, but it didn't appeal to me emotionally.

What I really liked though , and what you've already commented on, is Burke's descriptions and his sense of place. He is really very visual kind of writer.

Quote:
Originally Posted by the author of the text that amner posted above
And, always, the weather. The first 20 words of this article are the first 20 of The Neon Rain . The book ends, after 240 pages of rednecks and torture and cold humour and vengeance: 'The fall sky was such a hard blue you could have struck a match against it, the yellow light so soft it might have been aged inside oak' - just as every significant episode is bookended by the weather, the ever-changing moods of the Louisiana horizon act as pathetic fallacy to the very Southern goings-on in between.

Chandler's trick, when stuck for plot, was to 'have a man walk into the room holding a gun'. Burke's is to look at the sky.
Yes, I noticed that, this constant awareness of the weather and, to smaller extent, of the landscape, although I didn't think about it as a writing trick. As a matter of fact, I still don't… I took it rather as the author's (perhaps unaware) conviction that the weather plays too important role and leaving it out of the picture would be a bit like omitting name tags in dialog. And let me say this once again, I really loved these fragments.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Burke in [i
When It's Decoration Day[/i]]The low clouds on the eastern horizon were pink now with the sun's first hard light, and the white circle of moon was fading as though it were being gathered into the blueness of the day. Sparrow hawks floated over the wet fields, and somewhere beyond the church he could hear a dog barking, an ugly, relentless sound sustained by its own violation of the quiet air.
After reading the text posted by amner I actually felt like checking out one of Burke's novels, though maybe not as the next thing. :)

PS. I didn’t have Winter Light in my collection, strange.
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Old 14th Jun 2004, 19:59   #9
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Quote:
What I really liked though , and what you've already commented on, is Burke's descriptions and his sense of place. He is really very visual kind of writer.
His novels are full of it, to the point where landscape, weather and place all but become one of the main themes of his work. I doubt I'll ever get to Louisiana, but having read a fair few of Burke's novels, it seems I hardly need to.

What I also like about him - and this comes through in his interview above - is his absolute conviction that money lies at the rotting heart of the American Dream, and that it has a particular and peculiar Southern manifestation in his home state.

It is not just that the rich are rich and the poor are poor, but that their lives are wholly interdependent and interwoven, socially, economically, politically and personally. And because of that, because they simply cannot live without each other and the brute fact of their disparity in wealth, their relationship is wholly corrupted.

Burke doesn't convey this through a class analysis, he conveys it through personal relationships and the complex obligations that come with them. Consequently, a Burke novel usually starts with a lesson in family history.

If you're going to read the Robicheaux novels, I'd start at the beginning with Neon Rain, but he doesn't really get into his stride until perhaps the third book in the series. Other than that, maybe try The Lost Get-back Boogie, his Pullitzer-nominated novel.
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Old 10th Jan 2006, 3:01   #10
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Default Re: Book Number 9 - THE CONVICT & OTHER... by JAMES LEE BURK

Burke is one of my all-time favorites. I started with In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead -the title grabbed my attention- when it came out, and after that went back and forth between the preceding books and the latest releases. I think the Dave Robicheaux series is the best, although I question whether he should be getting regularly beat up at his age. I'm looking forward to the next post-Katrina Dave book, to see how Burke handles the devastation in New Orleans and its effect on Dave and co., since most of the action in the books seem to be in the area that was hit hardest.

By the way, I met JLB twice at book signings, and the second time he actually remembered me. Very nice fella.
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