3.29.2009

James Lee Burke and Pegasus Descending

James Lee Burke can really write.

You have to believe in something. Everyone does. Even atheists believe in their unbelief. If they didn't, they'd go mad. The misanthrope believes in his hatred of his fellow man. The gambler believes he's omniscient and that his knowledge of the future is proof that he is loved by God. The middle-income person who spends enormous amounts of time window-shopping and sorting through used clothing at garage sales is indicating that our goods will never be ashes blowing across the grave. I suspect the drunkard believes his own self-destruction is the penance required for his acceptability in the eyes of his Creator. The adherents of Saint Francis see divinity in the faces of the poor and oppressed but take no notice of the Byzantine fire surrounding themselves. The commonality of all the aforementioned lies in the frailty of their moral vision. It is also what makes them human (294).

Burke's novel Pegasus Descending is peppered with snippets of clear, introspective prose such as this. It's one of his great strengths as a stylist, that ability to impart keen observations on the human condition through narrator Dave Robicheaux.

That old saw about there being a distinction between literary and genre writers falls apart in the wake of analysis of works by writers such as Burke, Randy Wayne White and Jeffrey Ford. Some critics draw the line between the fields by distinguishing between tone and style. Others look at subject and theme.

Well, there's plenty of style here, and more than enough in the way of meaty human issues (race and class struggles, guilt and gluttony, courage and morality) to fill a couple of novels.

Burke paints a vivid picture of New Iberia, Louisiana. His setting is textured and vibrant, his human characters as much a part of the way things have always been as the gators and coons of the low country. Like his Florida counterparts, Randy Wayne White and John D. MacDonald, Burke is interested in testing and measuring the boundaries of the human conscience. Robicheaux is no easy character to figure--even when he goes blind with anger and beats a man nearly to death we see shades of morality in his behaviour.

I only came to this writer's work after having looked at the excellent film In the Electric Mist. I highly recommend this novel, and I'm looking forward to working my way through the rest in the series in the months ahead.

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