Saturday, April 12, 2014

Louisiana Lit: Dave Robicheaux and Louisiana's Shadow Self

Who is Dave Robicheaux? 

He's the protagonist in 20 books written by James Lee Burke, a New Iberia, Louisiana, writer.

Dave is a homicide detective in New Iberia, Louisiana. Cajun. Recovering alcoholic. Vietnam war veteran. A man who marries. A father.

You can read more about Dave here. And what he thinks about north Louisianans here. And alcohol here. And some music here.

Love of (southern) Louisiana

There is no doubt that Dave Robicheaux loves southern Louisiana - its scenery, people, music, food, traditions.

But he doesn't romanticize it.

From a Stained White Radiance (1992):
I sat on the railway tracks behind the French Market and watched the dawn touch the earth's rim and light the river and the docks and scows over in Algiers, turn the sky the color of bone, and finally fill the east with a hot red glow like the spokes in a wagon wheel. The river looked wide and yellow with silt, and I could see oil and occasionally dead fish floating belly up in the current.

From Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002):
Growing up during the 1940s in New Iberia, down on the Gulf Coast, I never doubted how the world worked. At dawn the antebellum homes along East Main loomed out of the mists, their columned porches and garden walkways and second-story verandas soaked with dew, the chimneys and slate roofs softly molded by the canopy of live oaks that arched over the entire street.

... on East Main, in the false dawn, the air was heavy with the smell of night-blooming flowers and lichen on damp stone and the fecund odor of Bayou Teche, and even though a gold service star may have hung in a window of a grand mansion, indicating the death of a serviceman in the family, the year could have been mistaken for 1861 rather than 1942.

Even when the sun broke above the horizon and the ice wagons and the milk delivery came down the street on iron-rimmed wheels and the Negro help began reporting for work at their employers' back doors, the light was never harsh, never superheated or smelling of tar roads and dust as it was in other neighborhoods. Instead it filtered through Spanish moss and bamboo and philodendron that dripped with beads of moisture as big as marbles, so that even in the midst of summer the morning came to those who lived here with a blue softness that daily told them the earth was a grand place, its design vouchsafed in heaven and not to be questioned. 

... Farther down Main were Hopkins and Railroad Avenues, like ancillary conduits into part of the town's history and geography that people did not talk about publicly. When I went to the ice house on Saturday afternoons with my father, I would look furtively down Railroad at the rows of paintless cribs on each side of the train tracks and at the blowzy women who sat on the stoops, hung over, their knees apart under their loose cotton dresses, perhaps dipping beer out of a bucket two Negro boys carried on a broom handle from Hattie Fontenot's bar. 

I came to learn early on that no venal or meretricious enterprise existed without a community's consent.

Louisiana's Shadow Self

From Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002):
"This is Louisiana, Dave. Guatemala North. Quit pretending it's the United States. Life will make a lot more sense," [Clete] said.


A love affair with Louisiana is in some ways like falling in love with the biblical whore of Babylon. We try to smile at its carnival-like politics, its sweaty, whiskey-soaked demagogues, the ignorance bred by its poverty and the insularity of its Cajun and Afro-Caribbean culture. But our self-deprecating manner is a poor disguise for the realities that hover on the edges of one's vision like dirty smudges on a family portrait.

The state roadsides and parking lots of discount stores are strewn, if not actually layered, with mind-numbing amounts of litter, thrown there by the poor and the uneducated and the revelers for whom a self-congratulatory hedonism is a way of life. With regularity, land developers who are accountable to no one bulldoze our stands of virgin cypress and two-hundred year-old live oaks, often at night, so the irrevocable nature of their work cannot be seen until daylight, when it is too late to stop it.

The petrochemical industry poisons waterways with impunity and even trucks in waste from out of state and dumps it in open sludge pits, usually in rural black communities.

Rather than fight monied interests, most of the state's politicians give their constituency casinos and Power ball lotteries and drive-by daiquiri windows, along with low income taxes for the wealthy and an eight and one quarter percent sales tax on food for the poor.

From Burning Angel (1995):
.... Any honest cop will tell you that no form of vice exists without societal sanction of some kind. Also, the big players would still be with us - the mob and the gambling interests who feed on economic recession and greed in politicians and local businessmen, the oil industry, which fouls the oyster beds and trenches saltwater channels into a freshwater marsh, the chemical and waste management companies that treat Louisiana as an enormous outdoor toilet and transform lakes and even the aquifer into toxic soup. 

They all came here by consent, using the word jobs as though it were part of a votive vocabulary. But the deception wasn't even necessary. There was always somebody for sale, waiting to take it on his knees, right down the throat and into the viscera, as long as the money was right.

A Stained White Radiance (1992):
... Over the years I had seen all the dark players get to southern Louisiana in one form or another: the oil and chemical companies who drained and polluted the wetlands; the developers who could turn sugarcane acreage and pecan orchards into miles of tract homes and shopping malls that had the aesthetic qualities of a sewer works; and the Mafia, who operated out of New Orleans and brought us prostitution, slot machines, control of at least two big labor unions, and finally narcotics.

They hunted on the game reserve. They came into an area where large numbers of the people were poor and illiterate, where many were unable to speak English and the politicians were terminally inept or corrupt, and they took everything that was best from the Cajun world in which I had grown up, treated it cynically and with contempt, and left us with oil sludge in the oyster beds, Levittown, and the ... knowledge that we had done virtually nothing to stop them.

Dave's words require no elaboration on my part.


Geoff Reed said...

Dave sure nails it. Profoundly so! These choice tid-bits are exquisite. Thank You! I've only read one of his books and enjoyed it very much. I'm now intrigued to read more.

Many visitors from up-north are most appalled at what they see (by definition, almost all visitors are from up-north). Particularly the ones from Ecotopia.

One couple from Oregon was just outraged that the cashier at Wal-Mart doubled bagged their items. I'm not very quick on the draw and only later thought of a coupla questions for them.

#1 Why didn't you purchase one of their reusable bags for one measly buck? Better to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

#2 What are you doing in Wal-Mart in the first place?

#3 Did it occur to you to thank her for being considerate enough to take the time to double bag your purchase to lessen the chances of the flimsy bags ripping through?

A significant number however are totally enthralled by the culture.

Perhaps with the help of Dave, you seem to embrace and grok both sides of this intriguing Cajun Country.

I would like to make more comments about these excerpts at a point later in time. I'm curious as to how you copied and pasted these into your blog. Or heaven forbid, did you actually type all of this in?

Mzuri said...

Hahaha - Indeed, I keyed them in!