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James Lee Burke Makes a Point with "New Iberia Blues"

Where can you score a handy summary of James Lee Burke’s new Louisiana-set Dave Robicheaux mystery, The New Iberia Blues? The front page of today’s newspaper serves it up cold.

Here’s how the 82-year-old Missoula-based Burke describes the societal themes he turned into his 22nd Robicheaux thrill ride:

“What we’re watching before our eyes is a re-creation of the same events that occurred in the early 1930s, and that involves the resurrection of nativism, xenophobia and the rise of the demagogues,” he says. “They’re here, brother; they’re back. That’s it. There’s no question about it.”

Sends the reader straight to the sports section. Am I right?

Brandishing his ever-engaging Faulknerian prose, Burke blasts his aging Cajun detective awake when a young woman is found crucified and floating on a wooden cross near the New Iberia lake cabin of his old New Orleans buddy-turned-hot-Hollywood director, Desmond Cormier. The plot thickens when Texas inmate Hugo Tillinger escapes nearby and mob menace Chester Wimple joins the mayhem.

Does it sound like there might be a few of the above-mentioned contemporary themes in there? Make no mistake: Burke knows exactly what he’s up to with The New Iberia Blues.

“My book is about fear and the misuse of power. I hope that people enjoy it. It’s one of my best books,” he says. “In The New Iberia Blues, Dave Robicheaux says that he and his partner Clete Purcel will never change the world but the world will never change them. That’s the goal. It’s not the former, it’s the latter. Let the world break its fist on your face and you grin and walk through the cannon smoke. It drives the bad guys up the wall. (laughs) They can’t stand it. Shine them on!”

“It’s the story we’re living out,” Burke says. “When people are frightened or they are willing to allow someone to inculcate fear and self-doubt into their midst, they always make the wrong choices. And that’s how nativism works – to inculcate fear of others in the electorate. And we’ve got some masters doing a real job and it has been extremely successful. When people are willing to suspend their mental faculties, to abandon their judgment and to give power over their lives to others, we’ve got a serious problem, and that’s where we are right now.”

Burke’s Backstory

James Lee Burke grew up in Texas and Louisiana with an unusual awareness of racism, sexism, classism and demagoguery, and learned how to fight back against them, thanks to his great-grandfather, Robert Perry, who hailed from a slave-owning family of wealth and privilege, and great-great uncle, Willie Burke, the son of poor Irish immigrants who opposed slavery. The young writer holds especially dear the diaries of his grandfather Walter Burke, who served as president of the Louisiana Senate during the Huey Long administration.

“He testified against Huey Long when few others had the courage to do so,” Burke recalls. “Huey sent the state police to the homes of the witnesses against him the night before their testimony and they were threatened, but Huey did not try to do that with my grandfather because of my grandfather’s reputation as such a good man. But Huey was a truly awful man.”

“When people are willing to suspend their mental faculties, to abandon their judgment and to give power over their lives to others, we’ve got a serious problem, and that’s where we are right now.” —James Lee Burke

Long, aka “The Kingfish” and governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, was assassinated in 1935. Burke recalls two other notable demagogues in his lifetime and how they met similar grim fates.

“[Wisconsin Senator] Joseph McCarthy was destroyed by his alcoholism and the fact that one man, Joseph Welch, stood up to him on live TV in a Senate session when he asked, ‘Sir, have you no shame?’ That one moment brought Joseph McCarthy down,” Burke recalls. “And [Alabama Governor] George Wallace paid a terrible price for his demagoguery. He lived out his life in a wheel chair, shot through the spine by one of his own constituents, the kind of man that Wallace had inspired with hatred and rage against people of color or just anybody he could target as part of their agenda. That’s the way it was back then. I was around back then.”

Burke’s artist perspective makes note of both the similarities and differences between demagogues past and present.

“Huey Long was the prototype of all of the demagogues that followed, including Joseph McCarthy and then George Wallace. The behavior that we see at work now and that has worked so successfully is extrapolated almost word by word, deed by deed, from these three men who were masters of it,” Burke says.

“But these men today are not students of history; they’re arrogant, they’re narcissistic. It’s not narcissism; it’s what psychiatrists call ‘malignant narcissism,’ which means people who are just simply pathological. The point is, they understand how the mass mind works and they are marvelous at orchestrating a certain scenario that, as we see, has been very successful. And that’s where we are right now.”

A Poetic Perspective

Burke summons a line from William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” to describe our plight: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

His personal experience also gives Burke great sympathy for the immigrants who long to become Americans.

"Remember what John Steinbeck said about the 1930s and the Great Dust Bowl: ‘We became frightened of a man with a hole in his shoe.’ It’s a great line, and that’s where we are now with these poor, desperate people down there on the (southern) border, being demonized,” Burke says. “I’ve lived in a poor village in Mexico and you see the most decent people... they’re God’s children and they’re the most vulnerable people in the world. Yeah, there are some bad guys in there, but there are some bad guys sitting in the dentist office with you. Probably about 98 percent of them are just desperate people. And why is this occurring? It’s because their countries are being run by dictators who are absolute tyrants, and exploit it by creating sweat shops down there. Why do drug traffickers exist? Because there’s a big market for their products up here in the United States.”

As he watches society wrestle with the hand it is currently dealt, Burke admits he has equal misgivings about his fear of a backlash.

“I do worry about the people who are buying into the scam – and it is a scam – that they’ll be able to wake up. But it’s the unteachability of the liberals and the progressives. This is my fear: they’re going to replicate all of the things that brought this about. They’re doing it right now,” he says.

“I just picked up the paper this morning and there’s this new congressperson, wonderful person, really nice lady, talking about a 70 percent income tax! (laughs) Fox News is delighted! They’re dancing all over the building about this wonderful story! And they’re really going to set the standard to prove how different they are. OK, their circular firing squad is filling up again, going to town. Where is the cyanide punchbowl? I want some more!” He howls.

As for his own separate peace, Burke remarks on the luck of being a struggling young author with guiding him and wife Pearl to their second home, a 120-acre ranch near Missoula.

“I came out here to teach at the University of Montana in the 1960s and I taught three years but I didn’t have a doctorate so I had to leave after the three-year contract ended. Fortunately, later, when my work became more commercially successful, we were able to move out here and for many years we lived part-time here and part-time in New Iberia,” he recalls.

His fascination with his second home has yet to dim.

“The first day I was here, I said, man, I’m going to plant it here. Where we live is like day one of creation, a wonderful place, the earth at its best. It’s full of writers and all kinds of artists, and of course, this was the home of A.B. Guthrie,” Burke explains. “John Steinbeck said it best: ‘Montana is not a state; it’s a love affair.’”

Editor’s note: Burke’s next book, Born to Be with You, will complete a trilogy with Robicheaux (2018) and The New Iberia Blues.

—Jay MacDonald

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