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Book Review: ‘Light of the World’ by James Lee Burke

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 jamesleeburke_lightoftheworld_cmbWhen English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge left the admonition to readers and writers that,

”… It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith…

he was encouraging the enjoyment of a literary work above and beyond the tactile, temporal world, where the only limit is the readers’ imagination.  James Lee Burke’s 20th Dave Robicheaux novel, Light of the World (Simon & Schuster, 2013) takes too full advantage of Coleridge’s request of the reader on multiple levels, beginning with keeping Robicheaux and sidekick Clete Purcell around just a little too long.

It has been a question swirling New Iberia since publication of Swan Peak (Simon & Schuster, 2008). How old is Dave Robicheaux?  Robicheaux alludes to his age several times indirectly in the series, often citing his unforgettable summer of 1957, when he was 19.   That would establish his birth year as 1938, making him 2 years younger than author. As of this 20th book, Robicheaux has reached the unlikely age of 74.  Purcell may be expected to be this same age, give or take, and has lived a harder life.  The likelihood of either lugging bear traps or vintage M-1s with cartridge bandoleres shooting up the wilds of Montana like Pike Bishop’s Liebestod in The Wild Bunch are pretty slim if not laughable.  Never mind they were both gunshot in the codas of the two previous books, The Glass Rainbow (Simon & Schuster, 2012) and Creole Belle (Simon & Schuster, 2012).  Not much time for rehab.

But that is just the beginning of my unravelling suspension of disbelief; the straw that broke my imagination’s  back.  There is the plot of Light of the World to contend with, and it is a mess, horizontally and vertically.  Burke attempts to add a layer of complexity to the plot at the expense of character development, which is one of his writing strengths.  All the elements of the proper Burkean story are present: the two protagonists — New Iberia Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux and private investigator Cletus Purcell; a gentrified object of Robicheaux/Purcell scorn; Love Younger and his family (which includes Purcell femme fatale Felicity Louviere, wife of Love Younger’s effete son, Caspian) and crowding fully into the story’s first row, Robicheaux’s daughter Alafair and Purcell’s daughter Gretchen Horowitz, who begin a compelling story of their own, that is largely ignored when all is said and done.  Robicheaux’s wife, Molly is present but inconsequential as is his host in Lolo, Montana, author Albert Hollister.

Also present is the Burkean anti-hero, Wyatt Dixon, who, like Sonny Boy Marsallus in Burning Angel (Hyperion, 1995) and Max Coll in Last Car to Elysian Fields (Simon & Schuster, 2003), is a horribly-flawed Everymen (like Robicheaux and Purcell): troubled, driven and violent but also generous and selfless.  There is also the Burkean villain, only this one is touted to be the greatest Robicheaux has encountered.  Asa Surrette is an escaped serial killer who fakes his death in a car accident and takes up residence in Lolo, passing himself off as a traveling preacher while committing unspeakable crimes.  Surrette receives a bit too much of a rave up too early in the book’s promotion to be of the stature of a Legion Guidry in Jolie Blon’s Bounce (Simon & Schuster, 2002) or an Alexis Dupree in Creole Belle (Simon & Schuster, 2012).

Okay, the plot in a single sentence: New Iberia gang on vaca in Montana; serial killer Asa Surrette escapes prison under pretense of death in auto accident; Surrette fixates on Alafair Robicheaux after she previously had interviewed him; and takes a similar shine to Gretchen Horowitz;  rodeo convict Wyatt Dixon plops down in the bloody middle with almost no connection to the story, save he is the bastard son of oil industrialist Love Younger who is ruining the Canadian outback with his natural gas fracking: the subject of a Horowitz documentary;  Surrette murders several people, kidnaps several people and generally causes trouble for a hick police force that are actually in Surrette’s employ; there is a big showdown with the odds against them, but Robicheaux and Purcell prevail to live another season…Oh, and Gretchen Horowitz lays a big wet one on Alafair, ringing her bell.

The missed opportunities are many.  With a highly touted evil character like Surrette, Burke could have turned Light of the World into a supernaturally/delusionally-infused morality tale like In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead (Hyperion, 1993) with its dead Confederates led by General John Bell Hood or Burning Angel with Sonny Boy Marsallus returning from the dead to save Robicheaux’s grits.  Instead, we are treated to a mish-mash of biblical quotes, innuendo and casual discussion of a villain that never is fully presented or realized.  Even Surrette’s death is shortchanged with Purcell, weak from blood loss, swinging an open bear’s trap onto his head.  Why not Robicheaux just shooting him between the eyes, proving that Surrette was merely a man and not the demon Robicheaux’s Creole Catholic superstition tells him he is?

Rodeo clown Wyatt Dixon is not fully developed either, though he is more clear than Surrette.  Mentally ill and violent, Dixon is the poster-child for family-of-origin issues grown into a physically and mentally powerful adulthood.  But outside of a brief revelation of his paternity, Dixon is left twisting in the wind until such time he magically appears to assassinate his half brother, the feckless Caspian Younger, who, himself could have done with a bit more character development.  Add Caspian’s wife, Felicity to the mix and we have a hat trick of incomplete characters with a lot of potential and no where to go.

The continuing relationship between Alafair and Gretchen is given a sweet injection of fire when Gretchen kisses Alafair on the mouth, leaving Alafair curiously conflicted and interested.  But, any further development of that dropped like a stone, unlikely to be pursued as the original protagonists of the series are long in the tooth and not likely to survive another vacation like this one.  Author Burke is not getting any younger either.  He has a golden opportunity to complete his excellent series properly.  My suggestion would be to have Purcell finally die and allow Robicheaux to have a colorful rumination of love and friendship.

That said, Light of the World was never meant to be high art.  It is a Summer reading selection populated with characters so well known they could be our friends.  It is a story to pass an afternoon while on vacation and with that in mind, it really is not so bad.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • Patsy Young

    Your suggestion to Mr. Burke, about ending the series by killing Clete, sickens me. Why do you feel it necessary to kill off a much beloved character? That’s really cruel,mean-spirited, and near-sighted. I wouldn’t begin to presume to give Mr. Burke suggestions.

    But, I would crawl and beg Mr. Burke to continue the series by renewing Clete
    and Dave with books like “Return to Elysian Fields” or “Dixie City Jam Repeat” or “Another Memory in the Neon Rain” or “It happened on the Sunset Limited.” You might not get the idea, but Mr. Burke wouldl. And he could take all of his loyal fans back to the memories and escapades of Dave and Clete when they were younger.

  • chip dunham

    did you have to tell us how the villain dies in the review?