THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, August 21, 1994 TAG: 9408230632 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J2 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Book Review SOURCE: BY PEGGY DEANS EARLE LENGTH: Long : 122 lines
DIXIE CITY JAM
JAMES LEE BURKE
Hyperion. 367 pp. $22.95.
A U.S. Navy destroyer attacks and sinks a Nazi submarine during World War II. Now, 52 years later, one man is so eager to salvage the wreck, he's willing to pay a $10,000 finder's fee. Another man will terrorize, torture and kill for the same information. A third wants to find the U-boat before the others do, so he can destroy it.
But wait. What about the grotesque ritualistic murders of drug dealers taking place in some New Orleans projects? Could any of the sub-seekers be responsible? And if so, what could drug killings have to do with a submarine?
Dixie City Jam, James Lee Burke's seventh Dave Robicheaux detective novel, provides creatively convoluted answers to those questions and (as the cliche goes) much, much more.
At the center of the action is its narrator, Dave Robicheaux, a middle-aged plainclothes cop with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department. A recovering alcoholic, Dave's a survivor in every sense of the word: His 10-month Vietnam tour has never ceased haunting him. He lost his first wife to the charms of other men and his second to cold-blooded killers. He rescued his adopted daughter, the only survivor of a group of Salvadoran refugees, from a submerged plane seven years ago. And Bootsie, his childhood sweetheart and adored current missus, has lupus, an illness that, though in remission, will likely take her life. That is, if one of her husband's enemies doesn't do it first.
Besides the old friends who were introduced in previous Robicheaux installments, our hero encounters a colorful array of new characters, with as many peculiar foibles as there are species of bugs on the bayou. (Some evil meanies would fit right in with members of the German SS.) Once again, Dave is drawn from his sleepy home and bait-and-boat shop into the moral quagmire of New Orleans, ``the Big Sleazy.''
That's where Hippo Bimstine, an obese, eccentric drugstore magnate, offers Dave the finder's fee. The fact that Hippo is Jewish, and a member of a watchdog organization focused on neo-Nazis and their ilk, is not enough to explain his eagerness. But that's all he'll say.
Max and Bobo, the Carlucci brothers, are two bad Mafiosi who have a score to settle with Dave's best friend and appear to have their own reasons for being interested in the U-boat. Dave has no lost love for these wiseguys, whom he remembers having arrested for administering a manicure to a young woman - with a pair of pliers.
Then there's Will Buchalter, a massive, blond neo-Nazi whose philosophy is only slightly less despicable than his talent for inflicting pain. Buchalter bedevils Robicheaux and his family, raising many goosebumps, as he finds ways to get into their home and under their skin.
It may be necessary to take notes in order to keep track of the many characters and subplots of Dixie City Jam. But rather than frustrate, the novel's complexity propels the characters and events, which culminate in a bloody showdown aboard a salvage ship.
Sprinkled throughout the action are Burke's lyrical descriptions, a signature of his expressive writing, of the bayou country he adores and in which he lives part time.
The 57-year-old Burke, who resembles his protagonist physically and otherwise, sees Dave Robicheaux as something of an Everyman with his share of faults. But his heart is in the right place. Through him, Burke has no problem delivering moral sermons, taking blatant swipes at the likes of Rush Limbaugh, and expressing his fears for the country he loves:
``What if, instead of a particular crime, we were dealing with people, or forces, who wished to engineer a situation that would allow political criminality, despotism masked as law and order, to become a way of life?''
He sees the ominous signs:
``. . . Financial insecurity. Lack of faith in traditional government and institutions. Fear and suspicion of minorities, irritability and guilt at the visibility of the homeless and the mentally ill who wandered the streets of every city in the nation, the brooding, angry sense that things were pulling apart at the center, that armed and sadistic gangs could hunt down, rape, brutally beat, and kill the innocent at will. Or, more easily put, the general feeling that it was time to create examples, to wink at the Constitution, and perhaps once again to decorate the streetlamps and trees with strange fruit.''
This is a book with a message. MEMO: Peggy Deans Earle is a staff librarian. ILLUSTRATION: Photo
IN THE SERIES
Previous Dave Robicheaux mysteries by James Lee Burke:
Neon Rain (1987)
Heaven's Prisoners (1988)
Black Cherry Blues (1989)
A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
A Stained White Radiance (1992)
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Lee Burke, 57, grew up on the Texas-Louisiana coast and
published his first short story at 19, his first novel at 23. He
worked the Texas pipelines, drove a truck in Kentucky and surveyed
land in Colorado. Later an oil lease negotiator in Louisiana and a
social worker in Los Angeles, he taught English and creative writing
at five colleges. His 1985 novel, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was
rejected by 93 publishers in 11 years. Finally published by
Louisiana State University, it was nominated for the Pulitzer
The success that came with Burke's first three Robicheaux
mysteries enabled him to quit teaching and move to Missoula, Mont.,
to write full time. He divides his time between there and his
Has James Lee Burke ``arrived''?
By many folks' standards he has. This Christmas, look for Alec
Baldwin as Dave Robicheaux in the movie version of Burke's 1988
novel Heaven's Prisoners.
- PEGGY DEANS EARLE