The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke
Reviewed by Thom Hartmann
James Lee Burke is, in my humble opinion, the best living writer in America. He's the Hemingway of our generation. One of my most valued possessions is a first edition of Purple Cane Road, one of his Dave Robicheaux novels. My son-in-law's father walked down the street to his friend Burke's house and asked him to autograph it to me as a Christmas gift.
Burke has also written the first truly big American novel that revolves around Hurricane Katrina. His tortured and introspective character, police officer Dave Robicheaux, goes into the Big Easy after the hurricane to help the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Dante couldn't have done better in describing the scene.
For those who do not like to brood upon the possibility of simian ancestry in the human gene pool or who genuinely believe that societal virtue grows from a collective impulse in the human breast, the events of the next few days would offer their sensibilities poor comfort. Helen had been worried she would have to give up command of her department to either NOPD or state or federal authorities. That was the least of our problems. There was no higher command than ourselves. The command structure and communication system of NOPD had been destroyed by the storm. Four hundred to five hundred officers, roughly one third of the department, had bagged ass for higher ground. The command center NOPD had set up in a building off Canal Street had flooded. Much to their credit, the duty officers didn't give up their positions and wandered in chest-deep water outside their building for two days. They had no food and no drinking water, and many were forced to relieve themselves in their clothes, their handheld radios held aloft to keep them dry.
From a boat or any other elevated position, as far as the eye could see, New Orleans looked like a Caribbean city that had collapsed beneath the waves. The sun was merciless in the sky, the humidity like lines of ants crawling inside your clothes. The linear structure of a neighborhood could be recognized only by the green smudge of yard trees that cut the waterline and row upon row of rooftops dotted with people who perched on sloped shingles that scalded their hands.
The smell was like none I ever experienced. The water was chocolate-brown, the surface glistening with a blue-green sheen of oil and industrial chemicals. Raw feces and used toilet paper issued from broken sewer lines. The gray, throat-gagging odor of decomposition permeated not only the air but everything we touched. The bodies of dead animals, including deer, rolled in the wake of our rescue boats. And so did those of human beings, sometimes just a shoulder or an arm or the back of a head, suddenly surfacing, then sinking under the froth.
They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquimines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead. They died in hospitals and nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest.
If by chance you hear a tape of the 911 cell phone calls from those attics, walk away from it as quickly as possible, unless you are willing to live with voices that will come aborning in your sleep for the rest of your life.
But while the novel takes place in large part in the desolation of the city and the hurricanes, it's ultimately - as Burke's novels always are - the story of people. In this case, a junkie priest, Father Jude LeBlanc; Bertrand Melancon, a lifelong criminal who hopes eternally for redemption; and Otis Baylor, a man swept up in it all like flotsam. And, of course, Dave Robicheaux is tortured by his own demons, particularly toward the end of the book when, some considerable time having passed since the disaster, he revisits the city
Early Tuesday I collected Clete Purcel at his motor court and headed for New Orleans. When we drove down I-10 into Orleans Parish, the city was little changed, the ecological and structural wreckage so great and pervasive that it was hard to believe all of this destruction could come to pass in a twenty-four-hour period. I had been on the water when Audrey hit the Louisiana coast in 1957 and in the eye of Hilda in 1964 when the water tower in Delcambre toppled onto City Hall and killed all the Civil Defense volunteers inside. But the damage in New Orleans was of a kind we associate with apocalyptical images from the Bible, or at least it was for me.
Perhaps I carried too many memories of the way the city used to be. Maybe I should not have returned. Maybe I expected to see the streets clean, the power back on, the crews of carpenters repairing ruined homes. But the sense of loss I felt while driving down St. Charles was worse than I had experienced right after the storm. New Orleans had been a song, not a city. Like San Francisco, it didn't belong to a state; it belonged to a people.
When Clete and I [had] walked the beat on Canal, music was everywhere. Sam Butera and Louis Prima played in the Quarter. Old black men knocked out "The Tin Roof Blues" in Preservation Hall. Brass-band funerals on Magazine shook the glass in storefront windows. When the sun rose on Jackson Square, the mist hung like cotton candy in the oak trees behind the St. Louis Cathedral. The dawn smelled of ponded water, lichen-stained stone, flowers that bloomed only at night, coffee and freshly baked beignets in the Cafe du Monde. Every day was a party, and everyone was invited and the admission was free.
The grandest ride in America was the St. Charles streetcar. You could catch the old green-painted, lumbering iron car under the colonnade in front of the Pearl and for pocket change travel on the neutral ground down arguably the most beautiful street in the Western world. The canopy of live oaks over the natural ground created a green-gold tunnel as far as the eye could see. On the corners, black men sold ice cream and sno'balls from carts with parasols on them, and in winter the pink and maroon neon on the Katz and Besthoff drugstores glowed like electrified smoke inside the fog ...
Every writer, every artist who visited New Orleans fell in love with it. The city might have been the Great Whore of Babylon, but few ever forgot or regretted her embrace.
What was its future?
I looked through my windshield and saw fallen trees everywhere, power and phone lines hanging from utility poles, dead traffic lights, gutted downtown buildings so badly damaged the owners had not bothered to cover the blown-out windows with plywood. The job ahead was Herculean and it was compounded by a level of corporate theft and governmental incompetence and cynicism that probably has no equal outside the Third World.
In addition to being one of the most stark and powerful of Burke's novels, and certainly one of the finest descriptions of the Katrina disaster, Burke resists the impulse that so often overwhelms lesser writers to slip into polemic.
The novel will leave you furious and sad and - because of its characters - hopeful and inspired, but the politics of the situation get only the lightest (and, thus, the most powerful) touch.
Early on, without mentioning that George W. Bush was out west eating cake with John McCain, and Michael Chertoff was largely ignoring New Orleans, safe in his belief that the free market would solve all problems, Burke drops a light but powerfully truthful note into the dialogue about how past presidents have dealt with hurricane disasters.
At 10:00 A.M. Helen Soileau came into my office. "How'd you make out yesterday?" she said.
"I wrote up everything I found and faxed it to the FBI in Baton Rouge. There's a copy in your box. I also talked to an NOPD guy on the phone. I don't think this one has legs on it."
"You don't think Otis Baylor shot these guys?"
"His neighbor seemed willing to finger him, but I had the sense the neighbor had some frontal-lobe damage himself. I think bodies are going to be showing up under the rubble and mud for months. Who's going to be losing sleep over a couple of looters who caught a high-powered round while they were destroying people's homes?"
"All right, let's move on. The Rec Center at City Park is full of evacuees. We need to get some of them to Houston if we can. Iberia General and Dauterive Hospital are busting at the seams. It's worse in Lafayette. I tell you, Streak, I've seen some shit in my life, but nothing like this."
"I couldn't argue with her. In fact, I didn't even want to comment.
"What did you think of Lyndon Johnson?" she asked.
"Before or after I got to Vietnam?"
"When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in '65, Johnson flew into town and went into a shelter full of people who had been evacuated from Algiers. It was dark inside and people were scared and didn't now what was going to happen to them. He shined a flashlight in his face and said, 'My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson. I'm your goddamn president and I'm here to tell you my office and the people of the United States are behind you.' Not bad, huh?"
But I wasn't listening. There was a detail about the Otis Baylor investigation I hadn't mentioned to Helen ...
"The Tin Roof Blowdown" is a masterpiece. It's entertaining, compelling, forceful, and delicate. And once you've read it, you'll be hooked - there are another 15 Robicheaux novels by Burke, and numerous other masterpieces of fiction, all equal in power and brilliance, and subtle yet touching in politics and the human condition.
This review first appeared on Buzzflash.