A Streetcar Named Canal

The Canal Street Streetcar Line in New Orleans

Although most of the South doesn’t interest me very much, I would love to visit New Orleans during the two or three weeks of the year when the weather isn’t too oppressive. And I would be delighted to skip the crowds of Mardi Gras.

New Orleans started out under the French flag from 1718 to 1763, then under Spain from 1763 to 1802. It returned to France briefly in 1802 until First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte decided to sell it to the fledgling United States of America in 1803 for $15 million, along with a whole lot of other land totaling 828,000 square miles. The only other flag that flew over the Big Easy were the “Stars and Bars” of the Confederate States of America (1861-1862).

Camelback House in New Orleans

What interests me about the city is its rich cultural (and culinary) history. (How many cities in our country have their own cuisine?)

Close to the city are the Cajun parishes of Louisiana, with their own transplanted French Canadian culture. Martine and I have visited the Maritime Provinces of Canada, from where the Cajuns (Acadians) hailed after they were deported following the French and Indian War. In preparation for some future visit to Louisiana, I have been reading the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke. And I am currently in the middle of George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes.

Until the coronavirus quarantine becomes a thing of the past, I won’t be doing much traveling—though I might go to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico to celebrate my brother’s 70th birthday in April. (That, too, is contingent on the virus.)

The Swamp of Evil

Swamps in Our Culture Are Places of Evil

One of the grisliest places I ever visited was the Mexican State of Tabasco, where storms upriver caused floods in Villahermosa. From the banks of the Grijalva, my brother and I saw the carcasses of cows and other livestock come floating past in the fast-flowing muddy waters. The humidity easily stood at 100%, if not more.

We have our swampy regions in the States as well. Take Louisiana, for instance, where the Atchafalaya Basin could become the new course of the Mississippi, if it jumps the Army Corps of Engineers dams to the north.

James Lee Burke, Author of the David Robicheaux Novels

I have just finished reading James Lee Burke’s Sunset Limited, in which David Robicheaux of the New Iberia Police confronts evils that are scarcely to be imagined, let alone experienced.

Years ago, a labor leader named Frank Flynn was murdered by being crucified upside-down with a nail gun on the side of an old barn. His children Cisco and Megan are back in the Bayou Teche area, along with some of the nastiest contract killers ever portrayed in literature. But then, as Dave reminds us, “Evil doesn’t have a zip code.”

The gnarliest of them, one Harpo Scruggs, also has a wicked sense of humor:

“You got a lot of brass,” I said to him.

“Not really. Since I don’t think your bunch [the police] could drink piss out of a boot with the instructions printed on the heel,” [Harpo] replied. He unscrewed the cork in the mescal bottle with a squeak and tipped another shot into his glass.

One thing that characterizes a Dave Robicheaux novel is the tendency of its hero, along with his friend Clete Purcel, a former New Orleans police officer, to confront evil head on, with intensity and frequency.

To date, I have read over ten of Burke’s Robicheaux novels with their brooding atmosphere of Cajun eeriness—and I intend to keep going.

Serendipity: “A Contract of Mutual Deceit”

Finding Truth in a Mystery Novel

Toward the end of James Lee Burke’s excellent A Stained White Radiance, written in 1992, I suddenly came upon this passage, in which Detective Dave Robicheaux of the New Iberia, Louisiana, police force ponders the existence of ex-KKK, ex-Nazi politico Bobby Earl. I suddenly found myself thinking about Donald Trump.

I had been determined to prove that Bobby Earl was fronting points for Joey Gouza [a New Orleans mobster], or that he was connected with arms and dope trafficking in the tropics. I was guilty of that age-old presumption that the origins of social evil can be traced to villainous individuals, that we just need to identify them, lock them in cages, or even march them to the executioner’s wall, and this time, yes, this time, we’ll catch a fresh breeze in our sails and set ourselves on a true course.

But Bobby Earl is out there by consent. He has his thumb on a dark pulse, and like all confidence men, he knows that his audience wishes to be conned. He learned long ago to listen, and he knows that if he listens carefully they’ll tell him what they need to hear. It’s a contract of mutual deceit by which they open up their flak vests and take it right through the breastbone.

If it were not he, it would be someone like him—misanthropic, beguiling, educated, someone who, as an ex-president’s wife once said, allows the rest of us to feel comfortable with our prejudices.

I think the end for Bobby Earl will come in the same fashion as it does for all his kind. Unlike the members of The Pool [Burke’s term for the mob] and that great army of villainous buffoons trying to sneak through life on side streets, Bobby Earl’s ilk want power so badly that at some point in their lives they make a conscious choice to embrace evil. It’s not a gradual seduction. They do it without reservation, and that’s when they leave the rest of us. You know when it happens, too. No amount of cosmetic surgery can mask the psychological deformity in their eyes.

 

Blood on the Bayou

Mystery Writer James Lee Burke

I have been reading occasional mystery novels by James Lee Burke over the years. Having just finished the first novel in the Dave Robicheaux series—Neon Rain (1987)—I now know why I like him so much.

Dave Robicheaux is the hero of most of Burke’s novels. After a traumatic stint in Vietnam, he joins the New Orleans Police Department. He has had a problem with alcoholism and a history with Twelve-Step programs, as well as a distrust of authority. At one point in Neon Rain, he says:

Like many others, I learned a great lesson in Vietnam: Never trust authority. But because I had come to feel that that authority should always be treated as suspect and self-serving.

His pictures of the Southern Louisiana landscape sometimes wax on the poetic:

Clouds of fog swirled off the bayou through the flooded woods as I banged over an old board road that had been cut through the swamp by an oil company. The dead cypresses were wet and black in the gray light, and green lichen grew where the waterline touched the swollen bases of the trunks. The fog was so thick and white in the trees that I could barely see thirty feet ahead of the car. A rotted plank snapped under my wheel and hanged off the oil pan. In the early morning stillness the sound made the herons and egrets rise in a sudden flapping of wings toward the pink light above the treetops. Then to one side of the road, in a scoured-out clearing in the trees, I saw a shack built of Montgomery Ward brick and clapboard, elevated from the muddy ground by cinder blocks and cypress stumps, with a Toyota jeep parked in front.

And:

Somewhere down inside him, he knew that his fear of death by water had always been a foolish one. Death was a rodent that ate its way inch by inch through your entrails, chewed at your liver and stomach, severed tendon from organ, until finally, when you were alone in the dark, it sat gorged and sleek next to your head, its eyes resting, its wet muzzle like a kiss, a promise whispered in the ear.

There is a great deal of violence in the plot as Robicheaux fights his police force and various Federal agencies at the same time as he tracks down a set of murderous thugs, one by one.