Saturday, October 04, 2008

Heaven's Prisoners

From singles 2

I was just off Southwest Pass, between Pecan and Marsh islands, with the green, whitecapping water of the Gulf Stream to the south and the long, flat expanse of the Louisiana coast line behind me - which is really not a coastline at all but instead a huge wetlands area of sawgrass, dead cypress strung with wisps of moss, and a maze of canals and bayous, that are choked with Japanese water lilies whose purple flowers audibly pop in the morning and whose root systems can wind around your propeller shaft like cable wire. It was May and the breeze was warm and smelled of salt spray and schools of feeding white trout, and high above me pelicans floated on the warm air currents, their extended wings gilded in the sunlight, until suddenly one would drop from the sky like a bomb from its rack, its wings cocked back against its sides, and explode against the water's surface and then rise dripping with a menhaden or a mullet flapping from its pouched beak.
But the sky had been streaked with red at dawn, and I knew that by afternoon thunderheads would roll out of the south, the temperature would suddenly drop twenty degrees, as though all the air had suddenly been sucked out from under an enormous dark bowl, and the blacked sky would tremble with trees of lightning.

I was looking forward to reading this after having so recently seen and been disappointed by the movie. (Sometimes I don't even understand myself.) Would I enjoy the book since I knew the story? Would my negative impression color over to the novel?

Above you have the first two paragraphs of the novel. Very quickly it was looking like I was going to be pleased, for in this book unlike either the movie or "The Neon Rain" the tree and bayous, the water moccasins and alligators, the sky and the weather were sharing focus with the action. And, it isn't just that I like a pretty picture. I really like a well crafted turn of phrase: "tremble with trees of lightning."

The movie had been faithful to the storyline of the book (with a few exceptions: number of gunners, Dave's relationship with the sheriff and the stripper, who's dead at the end). And, let me point out here- Clete Purcel is NOT a party in the book. (And, I'm guessing he isn't in "Electric Mist of the Confederate Dead", either. All this means 1. I was wrong to complain and 2. it must take quite some time before Dave is ready to forgive Clete (and Clete is ready to make his way back to Louisiana having fled the country at the end of "Neon Rain".)

OK. So the plot is pretty much the same. Its just that the book is so much richer thanks to Burke's descriptive passages. For example, early in the story Dave is "visited" by two goons who beat the crap out of him. The attack is ugly and painful in both the book and the movie. In the book, however, we end with:

I lay in an embryonic ball on my side, blood stringing from my mouth, and saw them walk off through the trees like two friends whose sunny day had been only temporarily interrupted by an insignificant task.

I love that image and how much it conveys about the attitude and character of his attackers. Violence is just part of their day - like kicking a can or picking a flower. They are neither agitated by it nor rushing off in fear of being caught.

Obviously, Dave falls off the wagon in the book as well as the movie. His drunken behavior was hard to watch in the film. It is pointless and self destructive- you know - alcoholism. It is no more impressive in the book, but because we're watching from inside Dave it is painted heavily with remorse. And, it comes and goes much more quickly. (And, maybe it helped to be reading it alone rather than watching it with Kevin. It is embarrassing to watch one of your hero's fall so low in front of someone to whom you are only just introducing him.)

Like the Atchafalaya Basin, the Cajun people - particularly Batist and Dave's (memories of his dead) father - color the novel in a way they don't the movie. Sure, we have to have Batist and Bubba Roque (Bubba happens to be the best thing in the movie)- but the dialect feels stilted and foreign. The odd manner of throwing in pronouns sounds awkward - like a child reading poetry. I want to hear this spoken by someone who knows. And, like other Southern American peoples, I love the stories they tell.

I didn't have an answer for her. But my father, who had been a fisherman, trapper, and derrickman all his life, and who couldn't read or write and spoke Cajun French and a form of English that was hardly a language, had an axiom for almost every situation. One of these would translate as 'When in doubt, do nothing.' In actuality he would say something like (in this case to a wealthy sugar planter who owned property next to us), 'You didn't told me about your hog in my cane, no, so I didn't mean to hurt it when I pass the tractor on its head and had to eat it, me.'

So, I'm back on my Robicheaux horse and riding off to the "Black Cherry Blues".

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