Burke’s existentially driven former New Orleans homicide cop and current Iberia Parish deputy Dave Robicheaux is one of the most compelling lost souls in American fiction. An alcoholic suffering from PTSD from both his experiences in Vietnam and his penchant for violence as a police officer in and around New Orleans, Robicheaux is the quintessential self-made Job for modern times.
In this latest novel, Dave Robicheaux finds himself once again lost in a land of ghosts, recently widowed as a man with a history of drunk driving had caused his third wife’s death at a lonely intersection in New Iberia. Coming out of an alcoholic blackout after a relapse, Robicheaux learns that he may have beaten the man to death with his bare hands, but has no memory of what happened. He finds himself it the Kafkaesque position of assisting in the investigating a murder that he honestly doesn’t know if he, in fact, committed. At one point in the novel, Robicheaux projects his own alcoholic self-loathing onto the New Orleans area as a whole:
“If anyone tells you he’s from New Orleans and doesn’t drink, he’s probably not from New Orleans. Louisiana is not a state; it’s an outdoor mental asylum in which millions of people stay bombed most of their lives. That’s not an exaggeration. Cirrhosis is a family heirloom.”
The mystery that follows, blending old-school drug running, charismatic Southern figures, and the bloody legacy of the American South is a corker, but what reigns supreme in the novel is the twisted ways in which the historical become one with the personal.
Burke populates the novel with characters familiar to Robicheaux’s world: the beaten down and abused, the local mobster, the drunks, the corrupt cops, the rising politician with skeletons in his closet, the itinerant psychopathic killer, and those who just want to scratch out a living without arousing the interest of the predators who wait, like hungry sharks, to clamp their jaws around those who speak out of turn. Familiar characters Helen Soileau and Clete Purcell reveal new depths to their humanity as they fret over their friend’s potential crack-up while struggling with their own demons.
Perhaps out of this collection of the damned, the most rapacious villain to emerge in the novel is the past itself. It plays such a central role in the novel, that perhaps I should write it as The Past, granting it the fully-realized personification that it attains in the narrative. The Past, for Burke, is both the personal and the social, and following how he intertwines the two into a New Southern Gothic sensibility is one of the most rewarding features of his writing. Burke goes beyond the Christ-haunted South to blend it with the racial Gothic, political noir, and a Nightmare Alley-like vision of alcoholism and descents into madness.
But, as with all great novels that eclipse their genre, this book goes far deeper than the mundane treatment of plot and resolution to meditate deeply on the fleeting possibility of redemption, the strength of true friendship, and in the possibility… a daily possibility if so chosen… of redemption for all seemingly lost souls. Consider the two following quotes that highlight the novel’s ironic tension between violence and redemption as embodied by Robicheaux:
“How do you handle it when your anger brims over the edge of the pot? You use the shortened version of the Serenity Prayer, which is “Fuck it.” Like Voltaire’s Candide tending his own garden or the British infantry going up the Khyber Pass one bloody foot at a time, you do your job, and you grin and walk through the cannon smoke, and you just keep saying fuck it. You also have faith in your own convictions and never let the naysayers and those who are masters at inculcating self-doubt hold sway in your life. “Fuck it” is not profanity. “Fuck it” is a sonnet.”
. . .
“Mortality is not kind, and do not let anyone tell you it is. If there is such a thing as wisdom, and I have serious doubts about its presence in my own life, it lies in the acceptance of the human condition and perhaps the knowledge that those who have passed on are still with us, out there in the mist, showing us the way, sometimes uttering a word of caution from the shadows, sometimes visiting us in our sleep, as bright as a candle burning inside a basement that has no windows.”
Burke’s vision of America in the twenty-first century is as accurate and uncompromising as it could be. We are a nation who has never learned Faulkner’s dictum that the problem with the past is that it even isn’t the past yet. We continue to pay for our sins because we have never come to terms with them.
Dave Robicheaux stands as a character who doesn’t always deserve our sympathy, but because so, he represents a truly American figure… one who understands his function in an already-scripted role, yet rebels against that role when it counts. By far the most existentially deep of the twenty-one novels through which Burke has developed the Robicheaux character, this book reaches an apotheosis to which few authors can wish to ascend. The best way I could describe the book is to ask you to imagine a word-processing cocktail shaker into which has been poured All the King’s Men, The Lost Weekend, Intruder in the Dust, and a liberal sprinkling of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. Shake well, pour over ice, add simple syrup and a mint sprig, and enjoy.