In a previous post I mentioned that James Lee Burke is one of my favorite writers ever. The first of his Dave Robicheaux novels that I read was In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, and since that time I had read 10 of the 11 that followed. The exception was Pegasus Descending. This week I finished that one, and believe it was the best of all.
I don’t believe it’s humanly possible to top Burke in his ability to evoke the ambiance of south Louisiana. His descriptions of the scenery are breathtaking. It makes me nostalgic for south Louisiana, although I sort of have a love-hate relationship with it. And to be truthful, in the four years I lived in New Orleans, I only ventured outside Orleans Parish on two occasions. Once I went across the Lake (no need to ask which lake–there is only one lake that counts in Louisiana, and that’s Ponchartrain) to Lacombe, for the Bayou Lacombe crab festival. My most memorable experience there was trying to buy a soft-shell crab po’-boy. The vendor told me he couldn’t sell me one because they had run out of bread. I said, that’s okay, just gimme the crab! I’m not going to eat the bread anyway! I don’t do fried seafood on bread! He said, You must not be from around here. No really, he didn’t say that, I’m making it up. But he did look at me like I was an alien while handing over the crab. He’s probably telling that story to his grandchildren now, under the heading of, “You won’t believe this…”
My second excursion was to Houma, which bills itself as The Cajun Capital of the World. It’s the largest “city” (population: just over 32,000) in Terrebone Parish. In Louisiana, where any food, nationality, or holiday calls for a party, a parade, a festival, or all three, Houma has the best-named one of all: the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. What I remember most about Houma is actually the drive there, down Highway 98. For a good part of the way you’re driving through swamps which come up to just below the roadbed. In any sort of bad weather event, it would be completly impassable. This road has the highest quantity of roadkill I’ve ever seen, as well as the greatest variety. Animals you’ve never even heard of have crawled out of the swamp and met their Makers. So much for wetland and wildlife preservation in Louisiana. Houma itself is pretty desolate–ugly, flat, treeless, and stifling. You’ll find “Houma” in the dictionary under the definition of “godforsaken”.
Another part of the ambiance Burke captures with total authenticity are the people of south Louisiana, their strange names and peculiar dialect which is unmistakably derived from French syntax. Questions are phrased as statements with an uplift of tone at the end implying a question mark. Example: I could have an oyster po-boy? “Me” or “you” are used for emphasis at the end of a sentence. Example: I like oyster po’boys, me.
Two parishes to the northwest is Iberia Parish, where James Lee Burke makes his home part of the time. The rest of the time he lives in Montana. If he has any sense at all, he lives in Montana in the summer, where hopefully the mosquitos are smaller. His character Dave Robicheaux is a deputy sheriff in Iberia Parish. Dave is a complex character, to say the least. He is barely on the side of the law, in some ways, and barely has control over his violent impulses. He’s a bit like the Archangel Michael–a protector of the weak who would be more than happy to slice your head off with his sword if it seemed appropriate. There is a certain nobility to him, living uneasily in the same skin with a stone-cold killer who, without some sort of restraining influence, would just go on a rampage because it felt good.
Now I will give you some exerpts of the scenery, the characters, and of course, the sex. That being a necessary ingredient to books that keep your attention.
The scenery: “In the west, the sky was the soft pink of a flamingo’s wing, the air heavy and damp and clean-smelling. Water dripped from the trees onto the bayou’s surface, creating a chain of rings that floated away in the current.” Or this: “Sometimes ground fog hung on the bayou, and inside it I would hear a gator slap its tail in the lily pads or a nutria or a muskrat roll off a cypress knee into the water.” I think even if you’ve never been to south Louisiana, you can imagine yourself there perfectly with these descriptions.
The characters: A man named Bellerophon Lujan believes a black drug dealer named Monarch Little has killed his son, although Dave is convinced Monarch is innocent. Bello, as he’s called, confronts Monarch on his “corner”. First he looses his Rottweiler on Monarch, but Monarch’s cousin kills the dog by whacking it over the head with a shovel. Then he attacks Monarch with his fists. Then: “Monarch wrestled Bello against the Buick, trapping him there, holding him tight against the hot metal while sheriff’s deputies spilled out of three cruisers, Monarch’s sweat mixing with Bello’s inside a cone of heat and dust and the smell of engine oil and rubber tires. The expression of despair and loss and a lifetime of impotent rage on Bello’s face was one I will never forget. No greater injury could have been imposed upon him. A black man had not only bested him in public but had treated him with mercy and pity while others watched, a deed that Bello was incapable of forgiving.” Later, Dave has an angry encounter with Monarch and is immediately ashamed of himself. He realizes he’s been deliberately cruel to a guy who is “clinging to the sides of the planet with suction cups”.
The sex: “Molly would stir in her sleep, her hip rounded by the sheet, her hot rump brushing against me. I would put my fingers in her hair, trace them down her shoulders and back, and along the deep curve in her waist. I’d kiss her baby fat and the two red sun moles below her navel. I’d kiss her breasts and stomach and mouth and eyes, then slip her close against me, burying my face in the thick smell of her hair”. Oh. My.
Pegasus Descending though, in the end, is the best because it has a complicated and interwoven plot. It’s a whodunnit that you cannot unravel by yourself. The characters are bonded to one another in ways they can neither control nor avoid, and in the end it’s as if their fates were sealed long ago, as in Greek tragedy.