The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

  1. February 15, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    I’ve never read this author. I’ve seen his books of course as he’s very popular here and I know people who are fans. Where is this one placed in the series?

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    • February 15, 2018 at 8:50 pm

      It’s the first one. I think you’ll like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. February 15, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    Thirty years ago, I met Burke and heard him read from this book. He read that terrific chapter where Robicheaux lies on his houseboat, drinks, and looks at the sky. I honestly did not quite realize that the novel was a mystery.

    For some dumb reason, this is still the only Burke novel I have read. A number of people have told me that I should at least read up to the sixth book, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. Bertrand Tavernier recently made a film of it!

    You are exactly right about the “Frenchness” of the voice and language. It’s the real thing.

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    • February 15, 2018 at 9:38 pm

      I wonder if he ever recorded audio books. I’d love to hear him read his prose.
      I’m happy I was able to read it in English and that I noticed the French touch in the style. My English is getting better.

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  3. February 16, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    I love the idea of New Orleans and Louisiana, though I’ll never go there, the food and the music, though I’m not so sure about the rednecks and the bayous. As a non-complier with Vietnam era conscription – certainly an attempt to incorporate us into the anti-communist project – I am uncertain about protagonists who were damaged by the war, which are probably written as anti-war, but which nevertheless seem to serve as a justification after the fact: “well, our people were hurt too”.

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    • February 16, 2018 at 3:11 pm

      I don’t think that Burke uses Robicheaux as something to look back on Vietnam and justify anything. It’s more a generational thing. This character has the age to have been sent there and he came back with bad memories. There’s nothing more to it than using it as a plausible trait of character. He could have used a more personal tragedy, he just used something more common for this generation.

      A French writer of the time could have done the same with war in Algeria if it weren’t such a taboo.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 16, 2018 at 3:30 pm

        A very good reply! I will have to think more about Algeria. Australian Vietnam War vets are angry that the anti-war movement made them feel if not guilty then at least embarrassed about their participation. Is it the same in France with the Algerian War? Or are the French as a whole asked to feel guilty about colonization? Whites here are angry that they are being asked to feel guilty about displacing the Aborigines. (What they should be guilty about is their abysmal treatment of them today).

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        • February 16, 2018 at 3:45 pm

          I didn’t even know there had been Australian soldiers in Vietnam. How was your country even involved in that nightmare?

          In France, it’s hard to know what vets from the Algerian war think because they came home and clammed up. This is a very dirty war we should be ashamed of it but it is too often dismissed with a “atrocities were on both sides” Sure, but that doesn’t excuse our behaviour.

          Colonisation is not discussed much here. Not as much as it should be. It’s different for us because we don’t share the same land as the ones we colonised contrary to Australians with the Aborigines.
          I think we should discuss it more.

          Algeria was different from the other colonies because from a legal point of view, it wasn’t a colony but another French department. Like Corsica or Brittany. This is why the decolonisation process was different, more violent, more passionate and ended up with this awful eight-years long war.

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          • February 16, 2018 at 3:58 pm

            Thanks for your answer about Algeria. Re Vietnam: The Liberal government in Australia sought and gained an invitation to join in to prove their loyalty to the Americans, who had replaced Britain as our great protector during WWII. The introduction of conscription proved their undoing, leading to a huge antiwar movement including a great number of non-compliers, of whom I was one. We were facing two years jail but were granted an amnesty on the election of a Labor government in 1972.

            Liked by 1 person

            • February 16, 2018 at 4:12 pm

              Thanks for the explanation, I’d never heard of that.

              Like

  4. February 23, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    I read this pre-blog and was equally impressed by it (and had the first cover which I agree is the best). It’s very good and Robicheaux is a great character.

    At least one of the later books in the series does directly address Katrina and its aftermath, but for some reason I never read past this first one. An error on my part, but time is always a constraint of course.

    Nice review. Will you read on with him?

    Like

    • February 25, 2018 at 12:00 pm

      I will definitely read more books by him. I loved the language and the character.

      Like

  1. January 6, 2019 at 11:06 pm

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