The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 2019; 447 pp., $27.99
Review by Jeffrey Wald
According to a 1975 Minnesota Supreme Court case, the “whole purpose of the Juvenile Court Act is to rehabilitate a young person before he or she becomes a menace to society.” A noble goal indeed: certainly there are enough menaces to society lurking about; if we could but intervene and rehabilitate the young urchins before they become full-blown menaces, utopian dreams of progress might finally be realized! But then a hairy question emerges: to what are we rehabilitating these juvenile delinquents? Some prior, pre-aberrant period of life? Or an as-yet-unrealized existence? A state one must progress, or regress, to? To rehabilitate means “to restore to good health or useful life;” and restore in turn means “to bring back into an original condition.” So to rehabilitate is to go back to a prior state, as in, “I broke my ankle, and through strenuous daily rehabilitation, it was restored to good health.” The aim of rehabilitation, then, is to bring that which is harmed, or harmful, or both back to an original condition that consists of a “useful life.”
At the heart of James Lee Burke’s latest piece of fiction, The New Iberia Blues, the twenty-second in his series of Dave Robicheaux books, is a reflection on human nature that stands in stark contrast to the therapeutic rehabilitative goals embodied in the aforementioned Minnesota case.
For Burke, or at least for his detective avatar Robicheaux, there can be no illusion that human nature, in its present configuration, is benign and innately trajected toward a useful life. Rather, something deep down in man is just not quite right. Something inborn is off. The very wiring is on the fritz. Man, as he enters the world, is a menace to society. Not becoming one through ill-fated actions, but already existing in a state of menace that plods ever toward chaos, destruction, and annihilation.
Burke has long been regarded as one of America’s greatest living crime writers, perhaps even as one of its greatest living fiction writers (The Denver Post called him “America’s Best Novelist”). But more recently he has garnered increased notice as an important living Catholic fiction writer. This is notable given that journalist Paul Elie asked just a few years ago in the New York Times, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”, encouraging readers to “keep looking for literature of belief” and finding it “where you can.” Perhaps detective fiction has not traditionally been a reservoir of Catholic fiction (Chesterton, Sayers, and Greene notwithstanding), but those who seek shall find in Burke a uniquely American, twenty-first century, Catholic voice.
Like the plots of other Robicheaux books (and most crime novels), the plot of The New Iberia Blues centers around a series of murders within Detective Robicheaux’s jurisdiction of New Iberia, Louisiana. In this case, the murders are ritualistic, the first involving a young woman who was crucified and left to drift at sea. Evidence seems to point to the involvement of a group of Hollywood men, the mob, foreign money interests, and a few local street cops. So far, so boilerplate. What is unique about Burke is not necessarily his plots or even his evocation of the evil at work in the world, but rather his ability to portray where that evil comes from: in other words, to articulate something of the nature of evil. For Burke, evil is not simply a manifestation of a mental health condition, or isolated acts from isolated individuals, but is something akin to a living organism. He writes, “Evil has an odor. It’s a presence that consumes its host. We deny it because we don’t have an acceptable explanation for it. It smells like decay inside living tissue.”
And for Robicheaux, evil also is not simply something “out there.” It is continually at work in his own soul, a soul haunted by Vietnam, addiction, and prior questionable acts he committed as a cop. In the depth of the night, “when the booze and weed and pills aren’t working anymore,” Robicheaux understands that “real evil is not simply a product of environmental factors,” but a “worm that lives in the human unconscious.” Perhaps it is a “disembodied presence floating from place to place, seeking to drop its tentacles into whatever host it can find.”
Of course, what Robicheaux describes is a condition known by Christians as the state of original sin: a doctrine which, according to Chesterton, “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” Robicheaux is not only aware of the reality of this doctrine, reminding his daughter that “we pulled the apple from the tree a long time ago,” but also about the ultimate end of evil left unfettered: “I wondered if human nature and our susceptibility to evil would ever change, or if we would continue in our war against the earth until we dissolved all our landmass and our structures and ourselves and returned the planet to the watery blue orb it once was.”
So is Robicheaux’s, and by extension Burke’s, vision ultimately one of doom, desolation, and despair? Not at all. For “where sin abounds, grace abounds the more.” And as with his Southern Catholic predecessors Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, Burke’s bleak realism is the very medium through which divine grace operates: not above the darkness, but in its very midst.
This grace is present in various forms. It appears in a meal shared with his daughter (“I had almost forgotten how wonderful the life of family could be.”) It appears in relief from another dangerous bout with the desire to relapse into addiction:
I was set free, and the past and the future and the present were at the ends of my fingertips, filled with promise and goodness, and I didn’t have to submit to time or fate or even mortality. The party is a grand one and infinite in nature and like the music of the spheres thunderous in its presence, and I realized finally that the invitation to it comes with the sunrise and a clear eye and a good heart and the knowledge that we’re already inside eternity and need not fear any longer.
It appears in beholding the natural world (the below quoted passage so characteristic of Burke’s writing):
I went to the window and looked at the miles and miles of mountain desert to the north, pink and majestic and desolate in the sunrise. It was a perfect work of art, outside of time and the rules of probability and governance of the seasons, as if it had been scooped out of the clay by the hand of God and left to dry as the seas receded and the dinosaurs and pterodactyls came to frolic on damp earth that, one hundred million years later, became stone. As I stared at the swirls of color in the hardpan, the sage clinging for life in the dry riverbeds, and the solemnity of the buttes, massive and yet miniaturized by the endless undulation of the mountain floor, I felt the pull of eternity inside my breast.
Finally, it appears in a mysterious light (perhaps the same light that blinded Paul?) and a large swell that rocks the boat holding Robicheaux, his kidnapped daughter, and the serial killer Wexler, throwing Wexler off balance. Resolution and rescue come to the protagonists in a moment of violence that makes Mary Grace’s thrown book in O’Connor’s “Revelation” seem tame by comparison.
At the end of Burke’s reflection on the nature of evil, what is one left to believe? Perhaps the Minnesota legislature is naïve, and the dream of returning villains to a prelapsarian state a mere fancy, but does this mean evil has the upper hand? Does original mean perpetual? Or does the light shine in the darkness, with the darkness incapable of overcoming it?
For Robicheaux, clearly evil does not have the final word: “the men who break in and steal by night, who spread self-doubt and fear and acrimony, will eventually fall by the wayside and be unremembered ciphers that disappear like scraps of newspaper in our rearview mirror.” And as for light, Robicheaux “cannot watch the sun course through the heavens and settle into a molten ball without feeling a weakness in [his] heart, as though God does slay Himself with every leaf that flies.” So in the face of all insistence that God is dead, James Lee Burke continues to insist that it’s because God died and rose again that we have any life at all. And because of that (and his prose, and his narrative, and his moral vision), he is a Catholic novelist worth reading.
Jeffrey Wald is an attorney, husband, and father of three boys. His short fiction, poetry, and reviews have previously appeared in a variety of print and online periodicals including Touchstone, Stinkwaves Magazine, Summit Ave Review, Whistling Shade, Philosophy Now, Light, and Plainsongs.