Book Review: Purple Cane Road, by James Lee Burke

Purple Cane Road, by James Lee Burke. 2000. Dell Fiction. Paperback. $8

Some people, when they write, take you there. You know what I mean; poets, authors, songwriters whose ink magically transmutes thoughts and imagery from their minds into ours. Lyrical words spellbind us, capturing our attention like the scent of a woman, like driving upon a freshly struck deer, still twitching in the highway median. Words that take over our mind, converting instantaneously into odors, sights, tastes, and pushing our emotions and we don’t realize until we remember we haven’t taken a breath in a while.

James Lee Burke is writing his autobiography using Dave Robicheaux as a pseudonym. At least the events and circumstances, and depth of his characters might lead one to think the book is an autobiography. How else could the history of these people, these towns like Bayou Teche, Morgan City, and these ramshackle tin-roofed houses seem so real?

Purple Cane Road is really about Robicheaux, before promoted to Sheriff. Years ago when Dave was a small boy, his mother ran away with another man. Dave’s father, Aldous, was known for the ferocity of his temper, being a mean drunk, and readiness to pound the daylights out of people. Mae Guillory, Dave’s mother, abandoned them, jumping from the frying pan into the fire, fleeing from violence at home and the demons in her own head into a relationship which leads to her own murder.

Dave’s mother’s unsolved 1967 murder comes back to haunt him in the form of Zipper Clum, a pimp trying to work out a deal with Robicheaux. Zipper gets busted filming sex with two underaged girls and in an attempt to get some leniency tells Robicheaux he knows who killed his mother.

Chasing down the murky details Clum’s story regarding Mae’s murder takes Dave through the dark and troubled backwaters of southern Louisiana’s bayous. Passion Labiche has a sister, Letty, on death row for the murder of their male guardian, a respected former state patrol officer who molested the girls throughout their childhood. Dave’s interpretation of the murder leads him to believe not only was Letty given the wrong sentence but also she obviously had help.

Belmont Pugh, Louisiana governor, refused to granted Robicheaux’s clemency request and to re-open the case based merely on Dave’s intuition. Connie Deshotel, the State Attorney General, was even less enthusiastic. Dave’s dogged persistence and connections growing between state law enforcement’s involvement in his mother’s murder developing like a Gulf hurricane, brings a storm down upon him and almost costs him both his job and his life.

James Lee Burke’s people are rarely pure good or pure evil. Every good person has a dark shadow lurking in the periphery; every killer has a silvery streak of humanity. One character representing morality and purity, Bootsie, Dave’s second wife, displays uncharacteristic malice when her daughter is threatened. A hired gun from Kentucky by way of Miami, brought in to silence someone takes a shine to Alafair. Bootsie then gets a sense of what Dave’s life and mind must be like, living with thugs, pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts during the day, coming home to some semblance of normalcy at night.

I believe Burke’s use of geography and history in all of his writing is simply brilliant. In a paragraph, Burke can distill a person to their essence as fine as a top shelf Kentucky bourbon.

“At that time the governor of the state was a six-foot-six populist by the name of Belmont Pugh. He had grown up in a family of sharecroppers in a small town on the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge, feckless, illiterate people who sold pecans off the tailgates of pickup trucks and pulled corn and picked cotton for a living and were generally referred to as poor white trash. But even though the Pughs had occupied a stratum below that of Negroes in their community, they had never been drawn to the Ku Klux Klan, nor were they known to be have ever been resentful or mean-spirited towards people of color.”

One of my pet peeves with authors is exposition, spending page upon page providing back story and history about a life or event. One author I read frequently – who I won’t mention – often consumes entire chapters on exposition. I have to go back and re-read earlier parts because I forget why the exposition was needed in the first place. In reality, most exposition isn’t needed; characters should reveal relevant details by dialogue or action. Burke relies only on a modicum of exposition, like that above, to set tone; then, his characters take over. In a brief telling, we learn of pecans and corn, the economic livelihood of sharecroppers; also, pecans don’t grow everywhere and are common in southern states. We also learn about the benign nature of the Pugh’s, resisting it would seem, any relationship with the KKK.

Here is another example of the infusion of geography and history, setting the stage for learning more about Connie Deshotel.

“Farther to the south of us, in the working-class community of Grand Bois, a young attorney, two years out of law school, filed suit on behalf of the local residents against a large oil corporation. The locals were by and large Cajuns and Houma Indians, uneducated, semiskilled, poor, without political power, and bewildered by the legal apparatus, the perfect community to target as the open-pit depository of oil sludge trucked in from a petroleum treatment plant in Alabama.”

Describing Grand Bois (“GRAN Bwah”) as a “community” is about all one can say about this tiny collection of homes along Louisiana highway 24. The biggest town nearby, Bourg, has a 2010 population of about 2,500 people. While Cajuns might comprise the bulk of the population, Houma Indians also call this muddy estuary south of New Orleans home. Their presence easily stands out in the regional toponyms. Not far to the west of Bourg is the bigger town whose name, Houma, is taken directly from the local Indian population. With a population of 32,000 Houma is the parrish seat of Terrebonne Parrish, Louisiana. The United Houma Nation is recognized by the state of Louisiana but evidently not recognized by the federal government.

The lawsuit referred to above is true (NYTimes). A simple Google search using terms, “grand+bois” results in a multitude of results. Grand Bois is directly adjacent to one of the most toxic waste dumps in Louisiana. Oil waste was trucked from Alabama in the 1990s into southern Louisiana and dumped into nearby waste pits. The residents began reporting numerous health issues almost immediately, diarrhea, asthma, chest pains, headaches, and dizziness. The corporations were Exxon and Campbell Wells Corporation, both of whom denied any responsibility for the health issues of the residents. The Louisiana governor at the time, Michael Foster, sided with the oil interests, which caused the governor immense irritation.

Burke weaves history and geography into his novels as fine as any maker of Turkish rugs. Smooth, silky, colorful and intricate with such care and grace you won’t even realize you are being educated.

In the image above, Grand Bois is the first little patch of light green east of Bourg. The second little green patch is the field of oil waste pits. Look to the northeast; at the scale provided the French Long Lot land survey system is evident. Notice how the worked lands radiate away from the river, perpendicular to the river flow. In the days of early land settlement, everyone needed access to the river for transportation, to ship and receive goods, for every day use, and for communication. In Europe, these farms are called “ribbon” or “strip” farms and are common in France, in Central and Western Europe. This land survey system can also be found around the world in areas of French and German colonial influence.

Yes, this is an older Dave Robicheaux novel, published in 2000. I’m just getting around to reading the older novels. A local bookstore went out of business, unfortunately, and had a fire sale on the inventory. Lucky me, I was able to pick up a few Burke novels.

In the opening pages, I wondered if I had read Purple Cane Road before. One of the issues associated with writing about a particular geography, it begins hard to uniquely describe the same place from book to book. For example, how many times can one uniquely describe the drive across the Atchafalaya Bridge? The first 3 or 4 novels are probably pretty easy. The fifth book and sixth book might require more work. The 10th book began to sound familiar, but that is part of working in a specific location. The writing is tight, clean, otherwise well-balanced, articulate, descriptive and above all, captivating.

None of Burke’s characters make it out of this novel unscathed, or unchanged. From the governor, the Attorney General, the NOLA police department, Clete Purcel, even Bootsie and Alafair, none are immune to the violence of the Deep Louisiana South. A wonderful book, worthy of your attention.

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