THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN: JAMES LEE BURKE

Posted: September 6, 2011 in review, USA

I have had The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke sitting on my book shelves for a long time. The events that nudged me into reading it were Hurricane Irene creating havoc along the Eastern Seaboard, and the recent riots in English cities. The Tin Roof Blowdown is an account of how Hurricane Katrina caused a breakdown in the civil authority, and what happened in the aftermath. It more than a crime fiction book, it is the story of a natural disaster and the reaction to that disaster.  

I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most. But that was before Katrina. That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.

What I find tragic about the riots in England is that innocent citizens were abandoned to the mob and the authorities did not have the excuse of a cataclysmic natural disaster, merely that the violence took them by surprise while most of them were on holiday.

I had not read any James Lee Burke for years. It was 1994 when stopping off on our way south at a small town in Virginia, called Occoquan, we found a small bookshop. I could not resist making a few purchases and came out with Black Cherry Blues, A Morning for Flamingos, and A Stained White Radiance. It seemed appropriate to ignore Interstate 95, and take Highway 1 south where there were smart well cared for homes with neatly cut lawns, right next door to derelict looking houses with rusting trucks, cars and machinery hiding in the overgrown grass. Even though we were a very long way from New Iberia I knew I was in the South, and had some suitable reading material.

The Tin Roof Blowdown is the 16th Dave Robicheaux novel, and there have been two more written since, Swan Peak and The Glass Rainbow. In the chaos after Katrina insurance agent Otis Baylor feels secure, he has a generator fixed up and the lights in his house are burning brightly. Two years before his daughter Thelma, was left by her date in his broken down car as he went to get help. She was found by some lowlife black youths and raped. The youths were never caught, and now two of them are across the street tearing apart a luxurious home. Betrand Melancon, his brother Eddy, Andre and Kevin Rochon think it is their lucky day as they find in the walls of this house bundles of cash, a stash of coke, a 38, and diamonds. But the ‘blood diamonds’ prove a poisoned chalice because the house belongs to Sidney Kovick, a notorious mobster, and he will want his property returned. Then as they leave and steer their boat past the Baylor house a gunshot takes one life and leaves another shattered. 

Dave Robicheaux, ex-alcoholic disgraced New Orleans cop now a detective for New Iberia sheriff’s department, along with his long time sidekick Clete Purcell try to solve the shooting, and deal with the criminals who come looking for the diamonds, people who will torture and kill without a moment’s regret. Dave and Clete also have to protect Dave’s family, his adopted daughter Alafair, and his wife ex-nun Molly, from the attentions of a very frightening  psychopath Ronald Bledsoe. 

James Lee Burke is a born story teller and as each character is introduced we are given a mini biography of their life. We do not know if this person will play a major part in the story, or just appear briefly, and this makes the narrative almost as chaotic as the the situation in the city.  A city called affectionately the Big Sleazy by Clete Purcel, and described with tenderness by James Lee Burke.

The grandest ride in America was the St. Charles streetcar. You could catch the old green-painted, lumbering iron car under the colonnade in front of the Pearl and for pocket change travel on neutral ground down arguably the most beautiful street in the Western world. The canopy of live oaks over the neutral ground created a green gold tunnel as far as the eye could see. On the corners, black men sold ice cream and sno’balls from carts with parasols on them, and in winter the pink and maroon neon on the Katz& Besthoff drugstores glowed like electrified smoke inside the fog.

And he describes the situation after the deluge, when the cuts in Federal aid, and the failure to strengthen the levees came home to roost:

…gutted downtown buildings so badly damaged the owners had not bothered to cover the blown-out windows with plywood. The job ahead was Herculean and it was compounded by a level of corporate theft and governmental  incompetence and cynicism that probably has no equal outside the Third World. I wasn’t sure New Orleans had a future.

When you get used to the constant switching between first person [Dave Robicheaux] and the third person narrative, the numerous characters and some racist attitudes, you have to admire the clever way James Lee Burke has used the real life event as the back drop to his thriller. He has given the reader so much social commentary, political comment amid so many stories about conscience, redemption and revenge. 

‘We saw an American city turned into Baghdad.’  

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Comments
  1. Norman – An excellent review of a fine book! Burke is, indeed, a fine storyteller, and what I like about this novel is the way in which he brings to the human level what happens in “everyone for him/herself” situations. As you say, Burke shares so much wonderful social commentary and discussions of the human condition without preaching.

  2. Craig says:

    A great review Norman. I finally read this in January, and really enjoyed the way that Burke incorporated the aftermath of the Hurricane into the crime/thriller tale. He really is a superlative writer – regardless of genre. I’ve just finished BITTERROOT, the first Billy Bob Holland tale of his that I’ve read (all the rest I’ve read have been Robicheaux novels), and it too has that poetic narrative, full of symbolism, imagery, and plenty of philosophy and allegory beneath the surface. Of course that’s a problem for some crime fiction readers – Burke is possibly too indirect for them, in terms of narrative drive etc, at times. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface, to make you think about people, humanity, and the wider world – but as it’s subtext, not everyone will ‘get’ it – and so I can see how some people think he’s overrated (I don’t – I think he’s brilliant) or don’t get what the fuss is about.

  3. kathy d. says:

    I should really read this book or another of his much-touted Robicheaux mysteries. I have a feeling I shouldn’t miss out on the experience.
    I don’t have any tolerance for racism, unless the author is exposing it to condemn it.
    One thing that isn’t known much and I don’t know if Burke deals with it is that several police officers in New Orleans were convicted recently of shooting several African Americans who were on a bridge during the Katrina crisis. I think two people died and several were injured. It had been a scandal in the news until the recent convictions — I believe on a federal level.

  4. Norman says:

    Thanks Margot-I agree, unlike some authors he does not preach on every page, but his loaded comments seem to flow naturally into the narrative.

    Thanks Craig- I think your comments are spot on. One point I don’t think his books have been treated kindly on the screen. Perhaps there is just too much going on under the surface to translate effectively to the movies.

    Kathy, James Lee Burke has definitely no time for racism, but he can’t ignore its existence in Louisiana. Dave Robicheaux at one point tells the story of how he was ashamed to be a cop when racist stories are told by his colleagues. He does deal with the shooting of African Americans by cops and vigilantes. You might not enjoy this book, although the racism is there for the purpose of unequivocally condemning it.

  5. kathy d. says:

    Sounds like I could read the book and enjoy it if Burke is writing about the racism to condemn it. He has a good purpose there so I could probably read it, if I want to revisit the horrors visited upon the people of New Orleans during and after that crisis.
    That may be a possible read. So much to read …

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