Sunday, September 07, 2008
Reviewing: "Swan Peak" by James Lee Burke
For those of us who write stories and are occasionally published, we are constantly told to never open a fiction piece with either a dream or the weather. The reasoning being, according to agents and writing experts, that such an opening is either clichéd or weak and makes the submission worthy of the instant rejection. That and the stigma of having ignored the current expectations of the publishing coasts and by doing so, showing that the writer is oblivious to doing things correctly. Ironic then, that James Lee Burke opens the latest novel in the Dave Robicheaux series doing both and it works well.
Two years after Katrina ripped apart New Orleans, Clete and Dave and his family are spending the summer in Montana. The "Bobbsey Twins from Homicide" are far older these days physically and mentally and both are in deep mourning. Not only in regards to their lives and the choices they have made or had forced on them from time to time, but they also still deeply mourn the city that exists no more. Unlike heroic and flawed gunfighters of old, they haven't literally run off a cliff, but emotionally they have and are still in free fall with no landing in sight. The current plan is to heal body and spirit as they stay on a friend's ranch and to ignore the rest of the world around them. If only it was that simple and with Clete Purrel nothing is simple.
Clete literally lost his way the night before and end up camping on what he thought was vacant land but wasn't. Instead, he has spent the night on the Wellstone ranch and has drawn the interest of two of his security goons. Goons that used to work for a very bad mob guy who died a few years back in a plane crash. The goons are bad news and should have been splattered all over the hillside years ago where the mob guy died.
Instead, they are working for a shady and very rich man, Mr. Wellstone, who happens to own the property virtually next door to their friend, Albert Hollister. That may or may not have something to do with the fact that within hours of Clete being asked to leave his campsite, two brutally murdered college kids are found nearby. Knowing they are in the area and have knowledge and experience that could help, the local sheriff asks Dave to advise him.
Something that probably would have happened anyway because neither Clete nor Dave can leave things alone when there are degenerates in the neighborhood. And there are a lot of them in this 402 page long winding navel gazing novel. While much better than the slit your throat depressing ode to New Orleans also known as "the Tin Roof Blowdown" this novel is another book that spends an inordinate amount of time going nowhere.
Along with the contemplation of the wrath of Katrina made worse by political incompetence and the concept of aging as what you knew ceases to be now, the old theme of evil that has been a constant spine of James Lee Burke's work is considered again. It is considered constantly because Burke, through his characters, attempts to determine if people are born into dark evil or instead through fate, exposure to others such as family, war, friendship, etc descend into evil. Is one made evil at birth or born into evil and corrupted? While not a religious novel in that sense, there is a certain religious pondering that runs through the novel as the topic is considered. It is no mistake that at least one character is saved by the love of a flawed woman and in essence, reborn and able to change his ways and find peace.
That consideration of evil and the beginnings of evil can go on for pages at a time and further slows down a slow work. A work made slow by far too many characters who are described in detail and used in story lines to stand as testimony to salvation and rebirth through the love of a flawed woman.
It would be easy to deeply analyze this book on religious grounds and write a college level paper for some English or psychology class regarding all the deeper level of meaning in the book. On that level, the book succeeds as it slowly works through several different themes and concepts. Read as a mystery tale, it doesn't hit the mark as too many characters have little relevance to the primary story line in a read that hardly goes anywhere for more than 300 of its 400 pages.
Swan Peak: A Dave Robicheaux Novel
James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the staff of the Plano, Texas Public Library System
Kevin R. Tipple © 2008