In the Moon of Red Ponies
by James Lee Burke
Published by Simon & Schuster
336 pages, 2004
James Lee Burke is a polite man with a sense of humor and an easy laugh. Those facts conflicted with my preconceptions of this author who writes crime novels containing serious political-sociological themes and quick-breaking violence. While I expected someone more cynical or dour, to his credit (and no doubt contributing to his talent as an author), Burke also sees the lighter side of dark human predicaments.
Born in Houston, Texas, in 1936, Burke spent his childhood growing up along the Texas-Louisiana Gulf coast. He began reading and writing at an early age, and by the time Burke was 34 years old, he had three critically successful mainstream novels on the market: Half of Paradise (1965), To the Bright and Shining Sun (1970) and Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971). But then he experienced what for most novelists would have been a career-ending event -- he went nine years "without publishing a hardback novel." His completed manuscript at that time, The Lost Get Back Boogie, amassed more than 100 rejections, which still remains "a publishing industry record," according to the author. During that dry spell, Burke managed to find a new agent in New York City and then did what many married men should probably do more often: he listened to the advice of his wife, Pearl, and as a result submitted his rejected novel to Louisiana State University Press, which finally accepted it. The Lost Get Back Boogie, published in 1986, went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and earn Burke a valuable lifelong lesson, that success is "a fickle lady" and guaranteed to leave you just as fast as she arrives.
By that point, the theme of American justice had been playing around in Burke's mind for some time, so after Boogie, he tried his hand at crime fiction. The resulting book, The Neon Rain (1987), introduced readers to Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a Vietnam veteran and New Orleans Police Department homicide detective. It was an instant hit with both mystery readers and critics. Today, the Robicheaux series -- 13 novels deep, and still expanding -- continues to run strong. Robicheaux is an "Everyman," a guy who fights for underdogs and people ignored by the larger portion of society -- folks whose lives are made expendable by men with wealth, power or privilege. In Neon Rain, it is the slaying of a young, black prostitute that outrages Robicheaux and leads him to investigate a much larger, more dangerous scenario. Similarly, it is the dumping of industrial waste on the property of a poor black woman that leads Robicheaux to the illegal doings of a rich landowner -- and into risky contact with the Mafia -- in this series' most recent installment, Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003).
Dave Robicheaux's fiery drive tends to rub his superiors the wrong way, and like many dedicated cops, it ultimately costs him his first marriage. But that drive remains an essential aspect of his makeup. There comes a moment in each Robicheaux novel, when the protagonist will cross the line and put his career and the fate of his family in jeopardy, whether he is facing off against evil ex-plantation overseer Legion Guidry, in Jolie Blon's Bounce (one of January's favorite books of 2002), or neo-nazi psychopath Walter Buchalter, in Dixie City Jam (1994). He simply sees no other course of action. Showing a touch of his dead father's Cajun sensibility and outlook, Robicheaux knows bad things are going to happen, but he can do no better than ride events out. He is powerless, for instance, to stop the murder of his second wife, Annie, in Heaven's Prisoners (1988), or to prevent the death of his next wife, Bootsie, from lupus.
Amid the fallout that resulted from battling fringe U.S. military agents in Neon Rain, Robicheaux packs up his belongings and boat and heads to Louisiana's New Iberia Parish, where he joins the sheriff's department. However, he remains only a stone's throw from the most important person in his life, Clete Purcel. When things get tough and complicated, Robicheaux can always count on Purcel, who started in this series as his NOPD partner, but subsequently left the force, only to re-emerge as a private investigator. Purcel is described as a "big man" who "fought to keep his weight down, unsuccessfully," and he is arguably the most chauvinistic, violence-prone and politically incorrect P.I. operating in the genre today. Purcel never appreciates the social or political repercussions of the crimes that Robicheaux investigates, but his heart is huge and he's careful to mangle only the civil rights of the miscreant. Burke sees the two men as descendants of Don Quixote and his loyal assistant, Sancho Panza. There is no denying the men's mutual devotion, though at times it's difficult to determine which of the two is attacking the windmill. At the end of Last Car to Elysian Fields, we find Robicheaux having resigned from the sheriff's department and Purcel opening an office in New Iberia. The trials and battles of these two warriors will carry on.
In 1997, Burke inaugurated a second series with the novel Cimarron Rose. Not only did that work win Burke his second Edgar Allan Poe Award (the first had been given to him in honor of his 1989 Robicheaux book, Black Cherry Blues), but it introduced the character Billy Bob Holland. He's a Texas Ranger-turned-lawyer, who lives and practices in Missoula, Montana -- which just happens to be one of author Burke's current hometowns (not surprisingly, the other is New Iberia, Louisiana). The fourth and latest Holland series installment, this year's In the Moon of Red Ponies, finds Billy Bob and his private-eye wife, Temple, along with their college student son, Lucas, pitted against an old nemesis, Wyatt Dixon, who's newly released from prison. Ex-rodeo clown Dixon made his first appearance in Bitterroot (2001), and like all Burke villains, he is a visceral, palpable creation that lives and breathes on the page. Yet the threats presented in Red Ponies don't come from Dixon alone. The novel also deals with a greater issue near to Burke's heart: the U.S. government's willingness to provide foreign nations with weapons that can be used against enemies, and its adamancy thereafter to cover its tracks. Burke has nothing but contempt for government elements with independent agendas, and sees them -- along with white-collar criminals -- as the most lethal forces in our modern society. Which is why, in Red Ponies, businessman Karsten Mabus is even more diabolical a foe than Dixon. Mabus is rich and controls numerous people, including state senators, and he nearly succeeds in killing both Holland and Temple. In a strange twist, miscreant Dixon actually becomes Holland's ally. Like Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland is introspective and comes to realize at this tale's end that "Mabus is of our own manufacture," and that the "pursuit of wealth and power" can never bestow "virtue" on those with greed in their souls. Red Ponies has been nominated for a National Book Award, and it should be considered a strong challenger next year for an Edgar. (It was also nominated for a 2004 Pulitzer Prize, but didn't win.)
Beyond their rewardingly slavish devotion to rich descriptive settings, both the Billy Bob Holland and Dave Robicheaux series boast touches of the supernatural. Throughout the Holland stories, Burke's protagonist engages in lengthy conversations with his late Texas Ranger partner, L.Q. Navarro. The Robicheaux series is likewise infused with the spiritual. Alafair Burke, James Lee Burke's daughter and fellow crime novelist (Justice Calls), explains that In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993) and Jolie Blon's Bounce "have an element of the supernatural to them that challenges the distinction between the literal and metaphorical. In Electric Mist, the reader's never sure whether Dave's conversations with a dead confederate soldier are real. And, in Jolie Blon's Bounce, one begins to wonder whether Legion Guidry truly is Satan and not just a representation of human evil."
James Lee Burke's place in the hall of American crime-fiction fame is guaranteed, whether or not he fears the fickle lady of success riding off into the sunset without him. In Alafair's words, "His greatest contribution has been to throw down a challenge to bend the definition of the genre itself. His books are never traditional thrillers or whodunits. They're poetic and literary and lyrical, but just happen to have some crime and police involved. Put it this way, I don't know too many other crime writers who'll say they were influenced by Chaucer, Don Quixote and the Arthurian legends."
Not long ago, I had the chance to talk by phone with the 68-year-old Burke, during his book-promotion tour for In the Moon of Red Ponies. We discussed the inspirations for his literary villains, his accomplished use of first-person storytelling, the significance of music in the American South, and why he thinks his work will ultimately go out of fashion.
Anthony Rainone: There are always many layers to your books, including some historical connection between characters, setting and plot. As Michael Connelly said about writing, it's like a balancing act. How do you approach writing a new novel?
James Lee Burke: I never know where a book is going. I have no plan. They just evolve and I incrementally discover the story.
Do you start with a question, or a premise?
It begins with a feeling of concern, of a dilemma of some kind. In the case of In the Moon of Red Ponies, if we don't change the way we're doing things, we'll destroy the earth ultimately. It's getting bad. [Laughs]
The bad guys in your books -- from Legion Guidry and William Buchalter to Wyatt Dixon -- are some of the nastiest villains in crime fiction.
Buchalter is a piece of work, all right. [Laughs]
Do you ever sit back after you've created these villains and ask yourself, "Where did I come up with someone like that?" Where do you get the essence of these characters?
You meet only two or three kinds of villains in [my] stories and novels. You meet the run-of-the-mill miscreants, the people who get into trouble, but are still like the rest of us. Then you meet the second group, [who are] sociopaths. They are in the minority. The third group, the ones that Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland have the most trouble with, [they're] those who have insinuated themselves into the mainstream of society. They're not legally criminals, but they do far more damage than people like Buchalter.
You also use a good number of Mafia characters in your fiction -- Fat Sammy Figorelli, from Last Car to Elysian Fields, for one. You've turned to them repeatedly in your novels and mined them as another source of danger.
They're big players in Louisiana. There's a famous comment that a member of the Chicago commission made years ago: Who gave [organized-crime boss] Frank Costello the right to own Louisiana? [Laughs] Because that's what occurred. I think Huey Long [Louisiana's governor and U.S. senator during the 1920s and 30s] cut a deal with Frank Costello, and Costello brought slot machines to Louisiana. The mob was headquartered in New Orleans [and] there's no question about their influence on Louisiana. It's enormous. There're many people who believe there were [Mafia men] in New Orleans who were instrumental in the murder of President Kennedy. Every investigation into the assassination goes back to the same names. It doesn't matter which avenue the person takes, it gets to the same locus at the center of what appears to have been a conspiracy. They're involved in all probability, in my view.
There seems to be a commingling of interests between the bad guys and the good guys in your books. The demarcation line is vague.
Oh, absolutely. Both groups live in the same noir world. And the attractions for both groups are basically the same. It's a rush living on the edge of an existentialistic existence. The character Darrel McComb [from In the Moon of Red Ponies] writes his Last Will and Testament and says, "Hey, I've never had to sell Tom McAn shoes." [Laughs] Most cops who are honest will admit they are drawn to certain aspects of that world that also draws criminals to it. They live in a world where the clichés that for most of us define society have no application to the realities of life. That's why most news reporters are cynics. They know the difference between the reality of how a city works and the way in which it's reported. You know that -- you're a journalist and I was, too. We went and filed the story, but [we didn't report] what was really occurring -- who was on the pad, which congressman was seen running nude down the hotel corridor spitting ice water and bourbon. [Laughs] It's not the kind of stuff going into a family newspaper.
There's an ethereal and spirit-like element to some of your books. Characters have vivid dreams, like Johnny American Horse [in Red Ponies]. Some of your players talk to ghosts, like Billy Bob Holland talks to L.Q. Navarro. And I wondered if Legion Guidry was more an embodiment of evilness, than human.
Oh, yeah. Shakespeare said all power lies in the world of dreams. The great body of human understanding is in the unconscious, in the world of dreams. That is how we figure out the reality.
What kind of research do you do for your books? Do you sit down with cops and talk?
I've never researched anything, and it probably shows. [Laughs]
No, not at all. I think there's a great deal of credibility in the ways that Robicheaux and Holland think and react.
I was a social worker once, working at times in association with California Parole and Probation. I worked with a lot of convicts and career criminals. And I was a newspaper reporter. Then, I worked for nine years for a Miami junior college that served as a kind of adjunct for the Miami PD. In truth, most of my work has to do with the larger society. I'm not really that knowledgeable about police work. The real story is in the psychology of the characters.
Why do you set your books in Montana and Louisiana? Why are those locales important to you?
They're both great places to write about, because their story -- the microcosm -- really reflects a much larger population, really reflects national issues. As Dave Robicheaux says, wars are fought in places nobody cares about. And the national issues that are probably most critical, most important, the war over them is being waged in places like Montana and Louisiana. And those issues are resources, energies and extracted industries. That's what it's all about. From Iraq to Afghanistan to the offshore oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico, that's what it's all about -- energy. There's no question about the flag we're operating under today -- it's energy. A massive need for it. You see, in Montana, extracted industries are trying to get into wilderness areas. That's the big issue. They're trying to drill right now on the edges of Glacier National Park. If they get in there, say good-bye to it, man, it's gone. No matter what they say, it's gone. It's like the discovery of gold by [General George Armstrong] Custer's expedition of 1873. The dye was cast as soon as gold was discovered on Indian lands.
The wars this country has waged have influenced your writing. The Vietnam War, for instance, has had a big impact on Dave Robicheaux.
Oh, yes. That theme is a very strong one. But the first novel in the Dave Robicheaux series, The Neon Rain, dealt with the smuggling of arms into Central America, aid to the [Nicaraguan] contras and a lot of other nasty characters down there. And that novel was written before the Iran-contra story broke. The point being, here I am writing this story in Kansas, while teaching English at a city university there. And if I knew about it, why was it a mystery to anyone else, other than Amnesty International, at that time? The first time I heard these stories was in 1981 or 1982, even about the shipment of arms through Israeli to Iran. I heard that story through Amnesty International, no later than 1982.
Prior to Neon Rain, you were more of a mainstream writer, for want of a better label. I've read that crime fiction lent itself well to the things you were already writing about, themes such as American justice. So that's why you started writing in the crime-fiction genre. Is all this true?
That is correct. Crime fiction has come to replace the sociological novel of the 1930s and 1940s. It's a way of talking not only about the underside of America, what Michael Harrington called "the Other America," [but] it's a way of talking about larger society as well. The only change that came about in my work was the creation of Dave Robicheaux in that series. A man who was sometimes a police officer, sometimes not, narrates the stories. That was the only change.
You write both the Robicheaux and Holland series from the first-person perspective. How do you ground yourself when you write one character, as opposed to the other? How do you separate them?
Using a first-person narrator is simply a matter of hearing the voice inside yourself. The character is already in the author, I think. The challenge is not to allow the ego of the character to dominate the story. I remember something the creator of the Bonanza series once said. He was asked how he created such a successful television series, and he said he created characters [that] an American family felt comfortable inviting into their living room every Sunday evening. It's a great line. Washington Irving talks about the same thing. He said a first-person narrator establishes a sense of familiarity and trust and intimacy with the reader that a third-person point of view cannot. America's most famous literary protagonists are usually in first-person, like Huckleberry Finn or Ishmael, in Moby-Dick. [Even] people who cannot read or write know who Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were.
I think your first-person voice is compelling. It's a lush, lyrical voice.
Thank you. Good writing is a matter of being a good listener. A good reporter learns that early on. If a guy just listens, the story will get said in one way or another.
So, let me ask you a very basic but important question: Who is Dave Robicheaux? What is his motivation?
Robicheaux is the Everyman from the morality plays of the Renaissance. He tries to give voice to those who have none. He is possessed of an awareness of events that will occur, but he can't control the outcome.
Robicheaux's paisano -- I hate the term "sidekick" -- is definitely not a politically correct character. The things Clete Purcel says are often shocking, but I find his comments so funny, that I'm almost crying from laughing so hard. He's an engaging character and is necessary to Robicheaux. Have you ever thought of writing a book from Purcel's viewpoint?
People have mentioned that. A movie producer talked once about doing something on just Clete. But you see, neither man is complete without the other. I think the greatest single aid to a writer is some appreciation of classical literature, [such as] the Renaissance and mythology. And you see -- Dave and Clete are descendants of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. So one is not complete without the other. The two of them form a third personality that's quite formidable.
Do you literally take themes from the Renaissance and plop them into your works?
No. They are metaphors used as illustrations.
You have a character named Alafair in your Robicheaux novels. Is she perhaps based on anyone we might know?
That's right. The character is based on our Alafair, who is our youngest child.
You must be very proud of your daughter's literary success over the last couple of years.
Yeah. Her novel Missing Justice just came out. She and I just did a joint interview. We have joint signings coming up. She's the first crime writer in the family. She's been writing murder mystery stories since the first grade. And she graduated first in her class from Stanford Law.
I loved Judgment Calls and I'm looking forward to reading this latest one.
Yeah, she's off to a very good start. The first book I thought was very good. She's got a great character in [Oregon Deputy District Attorney] Samantha Kincaid.
A few moments ago you mentioned a movie producer expressing interest in Purcel. Now, Heaven's Prisoners was already made into a movie, in 1996, featuring Robicheaux and Purcel. Did you like it?
Yes, I did. They had financial trouble. The production company, Savoy, went bankrupt during the production. [Laughs] But they gave it their best effort and they treated the material with respect. The director was very talented -- all of them, Eric Roberts, Alec Baldwin, Kelly Lynch, Teri Hatcher and Mary Stuart Masterson. It's pretty hard to complain about the cast.
Are any of your other works currently being talked up as future films?
There were a couple of big deals that looked like they were rounding third and on their way home, [but] they fell apart. One with Tommy Lee Jones, and one with HBO, but they went south. But it's the nature of the beast. If you know any Saudis there in New York, guys with lots of oil money who want to take a fling at making movies, give them my number. [Laughs]
Oh, sure, I bump into them all the time. But let's talk about The Lost Get Back Boogie, which I think was rejected -- what, 110 times? What was that whole ordeal like? How did you cope with it day in and day out?
By the time I was 34, I had published three novels in hardback in New York, and had a fair amount of success, and I was a Bread Loaf Fellow. I thought I was on board. With The Lost Get Back Boogie, I assumed it would be published. But, boy, I went 13 years before I was back in hardback again. And the agency that was handling my works sent everything back. They cut bait. It was pretty depressing. I started writing other things. I wrote short stories, I wrote other novels, but I couldn't sell anything. I sold one paperback. But I met my agent then. That was 26 years ago. Phillip Spitzer was driving a cab in Hell's Kitchen. He ran a one-man agency at night. He was my cousin Andre Dubus' agent. And Phillip kept [Boogie] under submission for nine years. And my wife kept saying, "Send it to Louisiana State University Press." I finally listened to [her]. I cut 80 pages from it, and Phillip and I sent it to LSU. And, by heavens, they took it. And they also took a collection of stories entitled The Convict. And they put me back in business again.
You've won two Edgar Awards -- something that most crime novelists will never do. What was that experience like for you?
It was great. Pearl and I went to the awards ceremony [for Black Cherry Blues, in 1989]. Crime-writing and mystery-writing novelists tend to be very nice people. The whole crowd is just fine folks. And they have a lot of fun. They had an orchestra playing all Glenn Miller and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey swing. It was at the Sheraton, near Central Park.
An orchestra? Wow, I wish the Edgars organizers still did that. While we're on the subject of music, let me say that most readers get a sense from your novels that you have a great appreciation for music and musicians, Robert Johnson being a name that comes first to mind. Music seems very important to you.
Oh, yeah. I have a great interest [in music].
How does that affect your writing process?
I think a person who writes about blue-collar America, about the Southeast, ultimately [he or she is] going to have to write about the music of the people. If you think about [musicians] who come out of the South -- golly, it's the American story. The American mythos has its origins down south. I remember something that an anthropologist said, about 1958 or 1959, about [Elvis] Presley. He said the truth is, Americans are fascinated by Presley, because he has all the characteristics of a Greek god. He looked like a mythic character, but he also represented all the mystery of the South. He was this kid from a welfare project in Tupelo [Mississippi], who fulfilled the dream of every working-class person in this country. He stepped through the door of this magic kingdom, but then again it was fraught with peril. You know the story of Sun Record Company, huh?
I know Presley made his early records there.
He made a four-dollar recording for his mom. You see, Sam Phillips produced not only Presley's music, but [also the music of] Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Jimmy Lee Swaggert started there. Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty. There was something Jerry Lee Lewis said once. He said all of those guys came out of the same background -- the Assembly of God Church. That's where they all learned to sing and play. So in other words, their lives were like cultural vessels filled with all this great stuff -- music and religion and cultural desperation and poverty. The Beatles said the greatest single influence on their music was Carl Perkins.
I remember reading an article that explained how Presley took the roots of black music and put it into a form that white people could relate to and assimilate -- prejudices being what they were at the time.
[Elvis is] probably the father of rockabilly. People don't think of it that way. Those early pieces that he did, like Mystery Train and That's Alright Momma.
The southern African-American experience and musical expression -- that social fabric is very important to you. It pervades your work.
That's right. You see, we're surrounded by music. We always have been. The Big Bands of the 30s and 40s. The beboppers. The progressive bands, like [Dave] Brubeck and all of those great guys. Miles [Davis]. And the rock-'n'-roll era. People said rock-'n'-roll was just a flash in the pan, [but it's] been here for 50 years.
Your background is southern. You grew up originally in Texas, right?
I grew up in Texas and Louisiana during the Depression. That era is gone forever. There is an enormous difference in the way we live today. Today it's all about "we." There's boredom with despair, boredom with experience. Today, there's a desire to have extraordinary experiences brought to us. There is a spiritual pleasure in material goods. When I was growing up in the South, my friend and I would try to figure out how to get 10 cents to go to the movies. We'd figure it out. Maybe shine shoes. [Laughs]
Your work often teaches readers about southern social mores. I think right away of books such as White Doves at Morning , which among other things, dealt with the Civil War.
Yeah. That, I think, is my best work.
On the strength of the female characters.
You mentioned that Andre Dubus, Sr. [who died in 1999], was your cousin. How did you two interact, as writers?
Well, we're entirely different writers. He was the best short-story writer this country has ever produced. I have the highest regard for his talent. There is nobody better. He wrote about working-class people in small New England towns. He wrote about the deleterious forces that have destroyed the American family. The movie based on his work, In the Bedroom , is a masterpiece. Hollywood snubbed it. But it is one of the best crime films. It captured ordinary people caught in unconscionable acts. Now there's a movie out based on another of his works: We Don't Live Here Any More. It's great. His boy [Andre Dubus III] is a fine novelist, too.
Which crime writers do you read?
There're some very good ones around. Of course, Michael Connelly is one of the best. Elizabeth George writes some really nice prose. Dennis Lehane's Mystic River is just a masterpiece, a great book. Connelly's Black Echo is going to remain a crime classic, I think. I think our greatest crime novelist was James M. Cain -- the most neglected writer in American Literature. I think Mildred Pierce would stand up against Henry James. It's a great novel. I'm surprised the feminists haven't caught onto it. [Cain] is totally ignored. It's a peculiarity. Academics appear to be liberal and without bias, but I don't think so. I was an academic for years. I taught at universities for years. Sometimes they think categorically and tend to dismiss writers that seem to be either proletarian in their emphasis, or seem to have some kind of categorical depth. They've never given much due to John Steinbeck, I think. Jack London is totally ignored. And these are great writers.
But perhaps they are considered too "popular."
There's nothing an academic finds more unpardonable than a writer becoming successful and rich. [Laughs]
I went to Amazon.com recently and plugged in your name. More than 4,000 references to your works came up. Web sites are certainly not absolute qualifiers of what's important, but they are yardsticks of a sort. What's it like to have accomplished so much in your career?
Well, winning is better than losing. Hemingway's son Gregory once asked his dad, "Isn't is important to be a good loser?" And Hemingway said, "Son, being a good loser requires one critical element: practice." [Laughs] More seriously, you learn at some point that success is a fickle companion and it leaves you as quickly as it comes. And if that person writes for money or success or fame, he'll never have any of those things. Those things find a person of their own accord. But again, they're temporary. I know that. I had all my problems in the middle of my career. But it'll happen again. The work will go out of fashion.
Oh, come on. I can't really see that happening. Not at this point. But that does lead me to ask: What projects are you working on now?
I just wrote three short stories and I've started another Dave Robicheaux novel. I'd like to get a collection of stories together, and I'd like to get the Robicheaux book moving along after this tour. I try to keep my goals short, in terms of time projections. I work every day and it takes me a year [to complete a book]. Years ago, I'd finish a book and see it drop into a bottomless well, when I'd start submitting it. Fortunately, most of what I write [nowadays] gets published, though it's hard to sell a short story. There aren't many places to sell them anymore.
Do you find it refreshing to write short fiction, to take a break from your novels?
Yeah, I love writing short stories. I just wrote -- I think the best story I've ever written. It's titled "Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine." It's a great story. It's under submission to The Atlantic, or The New Yorker. It's a tough go. There're so many people who write very good short stories in the business. There are only three or four [mainstream] magazines [that still publish short fiction], and then they publish one [piece] an issue.
I'd like to end with this last question. When you started out as a writer, what was your career goal? What did you aspire to do, and have you done that yet?
I have always had one goal: to write the story as well as I can, and to capture the place as best I can. And to hope that it brings some benefit. | October 2004
Anthony Rainone lives in New York City and is a contributing editor of January Magazine.