Saturday, January 12, 2008

Setting the Burke Way

I've almost finished reading James Lee Burke's latest book, The Tin Roof Blowdown, and yet again, am marvelling at his descriptions, the way he evokes Louisiana over and over again with such beautiful language. Yet this is a crime novel. Mind you, crime writers often focus on a sense of place in order to help create the world of their novel in more vivid detail. Stuart MacBride's Aberdeen and Peter Robinson's Yorkshire are two fine examples. MacBride's descriptions of granite and rain are memorable, and add such atmosphere to what's going on in the story.

Some examples from Burke: "The wind had died, and the islands of willows and cypress trees had taken on a gold cast against the sunset. Clouds of insects gathered in the lee of the islands, and you could see bream popping the surface and occasionally the slick, black-green roll of a bass's dorsal fin on the edge of lily pads."
"Tolliver tried to keep his face blank, but when he swallowed he looked like he had a walnut in his throat."
"His elongated, polished head and the vacuous smile painted on his face seem to float like a glistening white balloon above the people around him."

And an example of description moving the reader from one physical head to another's mind. "The cream he used in his hair had started to run and she could smell it on his skin. It smelled like aloe and body grease and candle wax. In her mind, she saw a bullet punch through a black man's throat and, behind him, the skullcap of a teenage boy explode in a bloody spray." When a writer is using detail like this, it adds such extra depth to the story and its characters.

The novel is set during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and I got an extremely vivid picture of the devastation, much more so than all the newspaper reports and TV footage. The way that Burke uses the five senses brings the wreck of New Orleans and surrounding areas to life in a way that flat images on a TV screen cannot. "The rice and sugarcane fields were encrusted with saline, the farm machinery buried in mud, the settlements down by the Gulf reduced to twisted pieces of plumbing sticking out of grit that looked like emery paper... Drowned sheep were stacked inside the floodgate of an irrigation lock, like zoo animals crowding against the bars of their cage."

It's probably inevitable that the novel itself is fairly depressing, perhaps a reflection of Burke's deep dismay at the aftermath of Katrina, what people did to survive, how they died, and the depths to which people sank in order to make big money out of the repairs. Dave Robicheaux, the main character, seems destined to always make the wrong decisions, to back the wrong people, refusing to listen to anyone but his own flawed inner voice. Burke's insights into the brutal Clete Purcell failed this time to make me feel any empathy for the character. I was beginning to wish they'd both retire to the Bahamas and become retired fishermen or something.

After so many books about one character, where does a writer take it next? Redemption? Disaster? It seems that Dave R. has had so many disasters and deaths in his life that there is nothing left that could change him in any significant way. He seems locked into a downward slide to destruction - the only question left being, Who will he take with him? Still, if you love Burke's writing, this novel is worth the effort, if only for an inside look at Katrina and what happened to the people who lived there. As a sidebar, in the novel Robicheaux's daughter, Alafair, is writing a crime novel. Burke's daughter, Alafair Burke, recently published her first crime novel. Having found it in the library, it's next on my reading list.


Kristi Holl said...

At the Jane Yolen workshop, she talked a lot about setting and the impact it needed to have on the characters. Not just the main character moving through the setting and describing it, but interacting with it, having it impact the main character's actions, etc. Do you look for that in books you read? If so, do you often find it?

Sherryl said...

Yes, that's always important, isn't it, rather than just a few lumps of nice description. In one of the bits I quoted about the fish, later in that scene the character catches an enormous bass and then quietly lets it go. It's a reflection of how he's feeling at the time about events in his life - very symbolic action but also the language and setting all contribute.
An argument between two characters can take place in a kitchen (predictable) or at a wedding or in the middle of a hedge maze. Each setting can add a different dimension to what's going on.

Tracey said...

It's interesting how different people respond to different things, isn't it? I must say I didn't like any of the first three examples you quoted, and for two of them it had nothing to do with the description itself. (I'm not saying they're not good examples -- just that they didn't grab me.)

The first contained that dreaded (for me) use of second person. As I'm reading I'm going "Who me? I'm seeing the bream? Or someone else?" Rip. I'm out of the story. Makes me want to throw a book against a wall when I see this -- that's how strongly I feel about it. (And yet I love stories written totally in second person... Go figure.)

In the second, I found the POV switch from inside his head to outside in one sentence distracting. And maybe it's meant to be omniscient. Even so, I'd prefer a single viewpoint in one sentence.

The third -- I just found that imagery odd. Don't know why. (Maybe it works better for all you visual people. Sometimes I feel so alone in how I see the world.)

I did, however, love the fourth -- and it even conveys what's happened. Very succinct. Very strong.

Alafair and Alafair -- is this the new way to plug your friends' novels perhaps?