Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Two years ago, a few days after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans, I wrote about James Lee Burke's novel Crusader's Cross and noted its eerie prescience. There, Louisiana's great Faulknerian crime writer imagined floods in the streets of his beloved city. At the end, a hurricane brews. By then, the real apocalypse had happened. I knew that Burke could no more dodge it in his terrific series of Dave Robicheaux mysteries than the forsaken citizens of the "Lower Nine" could flee their fate. What I had not expected was to read his almost Biblically intense response to the inundation and abandonment of the "Big Sleazy" in the very week that Norman Mailer died.

Where, Mailer's memorialists have asked, are the other writers who can harness the tempestuous realities of America today, then channel them into fiction that yokes pin-sharp social detail and prophetic vision to a steam-hammer drive? For an answer, begin with Burke's The Tin Roof Blowdown (Orion, £12.99). It even comes with a warm cover endorsement from a critic named Bill Clinton.

I can almost hear the ex-alcoholic, Vietnam-vet Detective Robicheaux drily comment: this gentleman for eight years held down a job that might – just might – have allowed him to do something about the poverty, racism, corruption and injustice of the South that Burke's books expose with heartbreaking eloquence. Then again, Burke's Southern Gothic sense of the choking presence of the past draws him into haunted scenes where history strangles the present and "the dead lay strong claims on the quick". His novel of Katrina's aftermath is the chronicle of a calamity foretold.

Seconded from his (and Burke's) home in New Iberia to the city where order as well as countless citizens have vanished beneath the floodwaters, Robicheaux encounters surreal tableaux of mass death and social breakdown. This New Orleans looks like Bosch, and reads like Ballard: from the "nine black people... floating face-down in a circle, like free-fall parachutists" to the coffins torn from cemeteries and "washed... through the broken front window of a country store". It's worth emphasising that no "literary" novelist has performed this task of imaginative witness to disaster yet. And none will do it half so well as Burke.

Robicheaux has to find his lost friend, the junkie priest Jude LeBlanc. He must work out whether an uptight insurance man, Otis Baylor, has used the post-Katrina open season on looters to take revenge on the small-time black crooks who may have gang-raped his daughter. And he must see off the creepily malevolent freelance agent Ronald Bledsoe when he targets Robicheaux's adopted Salvadorean daughter, Alafair. Every character, from Robicheaux's "beer-soaked, blue-collar knight errant" of a sidekick, bail bondsman Clete Purcel, to the conscience-stricken junior thug Bertrand Melancon with his "nameless fear... like a hungry animal", breathes the same steamy air of moral compromise and secret pain. Katrina simply flushes out the misery or malice of their lives.

Admirers of Burke will find that the man-made horrors in the storm's wake deepen some abiding themes. They include the savage inequalities of race and class, and the role of crack cocaine in turning a naughty city nasty. As ever, Robicheaux rages against injustice without a trace of hug-a-hoodie soppiness. He gives tough love to all these broken folks – but love it is. "People who look as interesting as a mud wall," as he memorably says, "have the personal histories of classical Greeks." As for Burke, he proves more forcefully than ever that he can dive down these mean – or drowned – streets and strike both a tragic, and an epic, note.