Critical Mass

James Lee Burke: “Louisiana Is Not the Past, It’s the Future”

By Jane Ciabattari

James Lee Burke, whose Dave Robicheaux novels are set in New Iberia in southwest Louisiana and in New Orleans, has been on my mind while watching the latest tragedy, the catastrophic oil spill, unfold in sickening slow motion along the Gulf.

Burke was one of the first to write fiction set in the post-Katrina universe. There were two short stories set during Katrina in his short story collection, “Jesus Out to Sea,” including the title story, in which two musicians and former junkies wait on a rooftop in the Ninth Ward hoping against hope to be rescued. It is a lamentation, a love song to a city that has disappeared.  “That's the way it was back then,” the narrator thinks. “You woke in the morning to the smell of gardenias, the electric smell of the streetcars, chicory coffee, and stone that has turned green with lichen. The light always filtered through trees, so it was never harsh, and flowers bloomed year-round. New Orleans was a poem, man, a song in your heart that never died.”

Burke's novel “The Tin Roof Blowdown,” the sixteenth in his  Dave Robicheaux series, set Robicheaux in the eye of the storm and its devastating aftermath. I spoke with Burke  by phone in the summer of 2007 for Critical Mass's “Thinking About New Orleans” series, in which I interviewed New Orleans writers about the effects of Katrina on their lives and work. He was at his ranch in a Montana valley, where the air was murky from wildfires. A new Dave Robicheaux novel, “The Glass Rainbow,” is due out in July.   Here's a prescient outtake from our conversation that has haunted me in recent weeks:

Q. Susan Larson, former book editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has called your writing over the past 50-plus years “one long ongoing story of what has happened to the state.” Has that been your intention?

A.  “Yes, but if my work will be remembered it would not be remembered for being about  Louisiana. I write about Louisiana as a microcosm of the larger culture.  Montana is similar in its history. They are affected by the same issue.  It's energy and resources. It started in 1914, and we're in the middle of the vortex. It's all about oil.  The great wars of the twentieth century and the war we've been enmeshed in since 9/11 are about oil. If people wish to see the fate of this country under a petrochemical oligarchy, visit Louisiana. It's not the past, it's the future.”