Blown away 

James Lee Burke writes the Katrina novel

Pity the people of New Orleans. Their city was flattened by Katrina, backhanded by Rita, then left to languish in its own putrefying stink while all of America watched on CNN and a president looked down from his airplane. But as people in the city will tell you, Nola’s true destruction came in the days and weeks that followed, as rebuilding contracts were parceled out to political insiders and emergency rooms struggled to stem the tide. For some reason, no commentators rushed to proclaim that “irony was dead,” or that “nothing would be the same.” There wasn’t even an avalanche of “Katrina” novels.

But thank god we do have The Tin Roof Blow-down, this sad, angry, incredibly timely new Dave Robicheaux book by the inimitable James Lee Burke, who is as qualified as anyone to write the “Katrina” novel. Burke was born in Houston, Texas, where many evacuees wound up; he grew up working in the oil industry, which is partly responsible for Katrina’s destructive power (drilling eroded the seabed and chewed up salt marshes, allowing the storm freer passage); when he’s not in Missoula, he lives part of the year in New Iberia, La., where several ongoing relief projects are headquartered; and he’s already written two books that address the hurricane.

But this book, it is abundantly clear, will be the Katrina novel for Burke. As the action begins, Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux is investigating the case of a junkie parish priest who has shacked up with a Latin American prostitute when he is called away to help in the disaster. We know from the first sentence how things will go, and indeed Burke struggles to evoke the hurricane’s maw—knowing, perhaps, that when it comes to category-five winds, even Proust would have trouble competing with HDTV and the 24/7 news cycle.

The novel gains traction when the storm quiets down and the real crimes begin. In New Iberia Parish, a group of hoodlums unknowingly raid a notorious gangster’s house, stumbling into cash, a gun, diamonds and, most dangerously, the notice of neighbor Otis Baylor. As it turns out, the hapless hoodlums are the same three men who raped and sodomized Baylor’s daughter, Thelma. Upon getting a positive ID from her, Otis does what many a father would dream of doing: he loads up his thirty-ought-six and shoots the bastards.

Watching the news coverage of Katrina, it was easy to see the post-hurricane frenzy as mere bedlam—but Burke cleverly and wisely places this period in the context of that age-old American pastime: vengeance. The post-storm lull was an opportunity for all who wanted to take advantage of it, as Robicheaux astutely observes. “As Americans we are a peculiar breed,” he says. “We believe in law and order, but we also believe that real crimes are committed by a separate class of people, one that has nothing to do with our own lives or the world of reasonable behavior and mutual respect to which we belong…Ever watch reality cop shows?…What conclusion does the viewer arrive at? Crimes are committed by shirtless pukes. Slumlords and politicians on a pad get no play.”

Nor do relatively well-heeled insurance men like Otis, for that matter. If you don’t mind listening to such lessons, The Tin Roof Blowdown rewards the reader with a tour of some busted pockets of the Big Sleazy, as Robicheaux and his colleagues like to call it, where we wouldn’t normally travel without a flak jacket. There are mobsters, hit men, bondsmen, claims adjusters and gang bangers galore in this book. Many of them talk rough without sounding like they’ve been given a dialogue coach; whatever research Burke has done to enter their worlds he wears as lightly as a bolo.

What’s so brilliant about Burke, in the end, is how he manages to show the ways the legitimate and illicit worlds had a special relationship in New Orleans. The gangster whose house was looted also runs a popular florist chain and is well known in the community. On the side, he sends out his heavies to track down the two surviving looters. Another compelling character is Robicheaux’s former partner, bondsman Clete Purcell, who was a big part of Jolie Blon’s Bounce, the best book in this series until now. As in this book, the spectacle of a rapist running free brings out Clete’s often-clouded moral instincts. And yet, even though he wants justice done, he’s not content to see it exacted at the hands of a known criminal.

Welcome, as Robicheaux says early in the novel, to the Ninth Circle—or as he puts it another time, the Garden of Gethsemane—the narrative homes of Judas in Dante and the King James Bible, respectively. The Tin Roof Blowdown is such a good straight-up crime novel it’s easy for Burke to plant these ultra-literary seeds and walk away. But he writes in such rich, unconsciously furious prose that they grow quickly into a canopy of shame and dread and vengeance that hangs over this story. Each one of Burke’s characters wants a pound of flesh—in part because they know they’ve been left behind to fend for themselves.

James Lee Burke reads from and signs copies of The Tin Roof Blowdown at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 17, at 7 PM. Free.
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