January 7th, 2018

Years ago, when I was first introduced to James Lee Burke’s prose, I balked. His style was not to my liking. Usually when this happens I don’t go back, but for some odd reason I did and I started reading with The Neon Rain and didn’t stop until I hit the end, of the, at the time, most recent book: Burning Angel. I’ve purchased and read every book since. I even have a black Robicheaux Dock & Baitshop hat that I wear while reading and sipping diet Dr. Pepper with cherries and lime wedges.

Stephen King calls Burke a gorgeous prose stylist.

As an undergraduate I covered local art events for The Athens Messenger and remember interviewing the director of a production of The Marriage of Figaro who told me that opera was conceived as an entertainment for the masses; that the audience would often stop the production and demand encores of particular songs. A star might sing a song a dozen times or more before the audience would allow the show to move on.

Reading Burke is like that. I started reading his latest, Robicheaux, and he stopped me on page two with a periodic sentence that is pure beauty.

He begins the paragraph ending the first section with the rhetorical question: Why should an old man thrice widowed dwell on things that are not demonstrable and have nothing to do with a reasonable view of the World? Then he steps off into the expanse:

Because only yesterday, on a broken sidewalk in a shabby neighborhood at the bottom of St. Claude Avenue, in the Lower Ninth of St. Bernard Parish, under a colonnade that was still twisted out of shape by Katrina, across from a liquor store with barred windows that stood under a live oak probably two hundred years old, I saw a platoon of Confederate infantry march out of a field to the tune of Darling Nelly Gray and disappear through the wall of a gutted building and not exit on the other side.

You can’t read a sentence like that just once or even three times; you have to loop back to the beginning repeatedly and feel veil part and allow yourself to fall into the words.

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