Not only is it Friday, but Barry is back to keep us going through February with another all new review. Make sure you check out the full FFB list over at Todd Mason's blog.
THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE (1986) by James Lee Burke
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
The time is 1962, the place is Louisiana, and Iry Paret has just left Angola State Penitentiary after serving time for manslaughter. On parole and acutely aware that he must be careful about how he behaves himself lest he wind up back in prison, this Korean War veteran, “a man who had been decorated with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star,” and musician (country and blues guitar), goes home to what remains of his father’s farm and to a particularly tragic memory of his deceased mother and sister.
His brother Ace and living sister Rita, although hardly poor, have put their dying father “in at Charity,” a fact that Iry resents and which his siblings try to deny. Despite their differences, Ace, who has been a successful public relations and advertising man, and who is considering branching off into real estate, offers Iry a job which the latter declines. “Buddy Riordan,” as Iry explains in his first-person narrative, “who had pulled time with me, had gotten his father to sponsor me with the Office of Parole and Probation in Missoula.” Iry thus gains permission to travel to Montana, meet the parole officer there, and begin an unforeseeably complicated life with Frank Riordan and his family.
The Riordan ranch is a thirteen-hundred-acre property, and Iry bunks with Buddy in a cabin apart from the main house. Buddy is another musician, a jazz pianist who “had strange Bird Parker rhythms in his head,” and who is heavily into drugs like marijuana and LSD, as well as “pseudo-drugs” like Benzedrex inhalers and airplane glue. Both he and Iry are inclined to consume a great many alcoholic beverages whether alone and apart.
What Iry doesn’t learn until after he arrives in Montana is that rancher Frank Riordan is involved in a legal war with a pulp mill over the mill’s pollution, a war which, however noble its environmental intent on Riordan’s part, threatens to put hundreds of local citizens out of work. As Buddy’s estranged wife Beth tells Iry about her father-in-law: “He draws an imaginary line that nobody else knows about, and when someone steps over it, you’d better watch out for Frank Riordan.” Along with the elder Riordan and Buddy, Iry learns just how vindictive the locals show themselves to be. Their violent activities spawn retribution on Iry’s part, which threatens, in turn, his parole and heightens his chances of spending time in a Montana prison followed by a return trip to Angola. Sheriff Pat Floyd is looking for an excuse to jail him.
I don’t want to reveal anything more about the plot beyond pointing out that the farther into it the story proceeds, the greater Iry’s future risks imprisonment because of his and others’ actions. This might make it sound like a generic sort of crime novel, but it’s not really so. The Lost Get-Back Boogie is a literary novel that happens to involve some crime, but is above all the story of one man’s road to redemption, however noirish it sometimes seems in the telling. As for that telling, readers hyper-sensitive about drug use, racial epithets, street language, and sexual situations will probably want to avoid this one.
If I have any complaint about that telling, it’s one which extends to the author’s Dave Robicheaux mystery/crime novels as well. Burke’s prose is vivid and often flat-out gorgeous, and he has a penchant for extended descriptions of natural surroundings, as in The Lost Get-Back Boogie—e.g., “In the morning the sun broke across the blue ridge of mountains, and the wet, green meadows shimmered in the light. The shadows at the base of the mountains were purple like a cold bruise, and as the morning warmed and the dew burned away on the grass, the cattle moved slowly into the shade of the cottonwoods along the river.” My problem with this sort of thing—and I readily admit that I might not be as visually-inclined as other readers so the issue might primarily be mine—is that it often seems overdone to the point of feeling padded: poetic verbiage for its own sake or to convey an atmosphere we’ve long since come to recognize and feel earlier in the story.
But that’s a minor complaint at best about passages readers can peruse or skim as they choose. When it comes to beautifully written novels featuring strongly developed characters thrust into morally complex situations, James Lee Burke needn’t take a backseat to anyone.