Introduction to the Scorpion Press edition of Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke
I've been sitting here wondering which of several hats I might don to write this introduction.
I could play the critic and go on about how the mystery concerns itself with the past erupting into the present, about archetypes and the many ways in which the crime novel retells stories hardwired within us.
I could easily slip into the role of fellow novelist, talk about what it is to live as a writer, tell you how much I've learned from this man.
Or I could take the stage as for many years a fellow Louisianan, a fellow lover and chronicler of New Orleans.
But instead, I'm going to abjure all masks here and come out barefaced.
I am a flat-out, shameless fan of James Lee Burke. If he were a rock group I'd have all the t-shirts, I'd be prowling the Internet looking to buy taped concerts, and I'd be following him from venue to venue in my banger VW or rusted-out Datsun. Can't get enough. The magic never fades. Hell, I once spent two days of a four-day New York trip holed up in my hotel room reading his new novel.
Back in the dim reaches of the past, before I'd published a novel of my own, I reviewed A Morning for Flamingos in The Washington Post. "Muscular, headlong stories that honor and at the same time expand conventions of the form," I noted then, adding: "It is quite possible that no one writes better detective novels." I'd spent the previous year or so reading Burke's complete works, beginning with the first Robicheaux novel and, having worked my way through those, seeking out older books: Two for Texas, Lay Down My Sword and Shield, The Lost Get-Back Boogie. I was not only reading with intense pleasure, I was also going to school. Out of those Robicheaux novels, with their sure depiction of the Louisiana landscape and the parallel lives of the region's several cultures, came my decision to write about New Orleans, as well as evidence for my growing conviction that the crime novel might be the best lens to focus on what we've made of ourselves and our cities here in post-frontier America. And from the earlier novels and the simple example of Jim Burke came the conviction to write exactly what, and as, I wished.
No one else catches New Orleans as does Burke. Few speak so well to the ever-shifting balance between action and contemplation in our lives, or so well address the relationship of personal and public life: how the self is formed by its environment, how that environment is in turn formed by the many selves, often in dire conflict, that constitute it.
And no one else speaks so lyrically, and at the same time so elegiacally, about an America barely hanging on to what once was. Jim's epilogues, which at first you anticipate to be quiet codas, will tear you apart.
In many ways the American South has always felt itself to be a colonized land, out of which perception come the dark humor, the dissembling, and the sometimes subversive, sometimes prideful attempts to preserve culture that we find common to a colonized people. Southern literature's surest origins are in Poe, the first great Southern writer, several of whose stories, such as "The Fall of the House of Usher," may be seen as covert or coded eulogies to the ethos of the antebellum South, to a way of life (as Jim Burke has written) "being consumed on the edges like an old photograph held to a flame."
It is a marginal land, and Burke's are marginal characters, mugwumps all, one leg planted in this country's occult past, one in personal history, weight shifting restlessly forever between the two. Dave Robicheaux searches for honor in a world where southern gentlemen have devolved to good ol' boys; where friends with names like Clete and Bubba and Batist will stiff you and fight you if you call them on it, then turn and fight at your side against impossible odds; where, at every turn, centers refuse to hold, rules forever change.
"But I don't dwell on the great mysteries any more," Jim Burke writes here. "Alafair will be home for Christmas and Molly and I greet each day as lovers just discovering one another. I live in a place where Confederate soldiers in ragged uniforms hover on the edge of one's vision, beckoning from the mist, calling us back into the past, reminding us that the mythos of winged horses and Grecian warriors was fashioned in our collective souls, that our story is that of ancient gods and peoples and their stories are ours."
And once all the talk about Burke's style is done with, once we've exhausted discussion of his sense of place, his role in American crime fiction, his status as Southern writer, this is what remains, the essential James Lee Burke: his reminder that the real terrors, the real struggles, are always personal and private; that the bad guys have faces and families just like the good ol' boys do; that any foothold is precarious and gives way even as you reach for the next.
The individual life, Burke reminds us, is frail, locked forever to the moment's sensations and uncertainties. Yet behind that life — and this is why the bayou and Louisiana's perduring cultures have such presence and become such important metaphors for Burke — is something stretching back to the far reach of history and of being, something which, through bonds and commitments to others, through re-embracing the natural world and its rhythms, we may yet be a part of.
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