Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Jesus Out to Sea"

From Singles 2009

I took my mother and auntie to the local library so they could get some materials with which to entertain themselves while I was working. Naturally, I checked what was on the shelf by James Lee Burke. The only item available at Chermside at that time was a collection of short stories.

This was the first time I'd read any of Burke's short stories and I was surprised to find many of the characters I'd met in his novels. Not Dave or Clete or even Bootsie, but some of the "bad guys" - lesser bad guys really or men who knew the lesser bad guys. Even if I didn't know the person, I recognized some familiar names: Guidry, Hollister, Pougue, Sonnier... These names, the familiar Louisiana and Montana locales, the alcoholics and the war vets shouldn't have surprised me. He's just writing about the folks he knows "at home" in his novels. Eventually, I looked at the index and found that some of my recognition stemmed from the stories actually being excerpts from novels! Glad I had already read those novels!

But on our block - and that is all we ever called the place we lived, "our block" - the era was marked not so much by a distant war as it was by the presence of radios in people's windows and on their front porches, the visits to the block of the bookmobile and the Popsicle man, and games of street ball and hide-and-seek on summer evenings that smelled of flowers and water sprayed from garden hoses.

Three of the stories followed boys- 10, 12, 14 years old...something like that - set in New Orleans during WWII. No one is named Dave and none of the family experiences match Dave's, but you can see something of Dave's "stand up" character in the young protagonist, Charlie. The stories are Charlie's stories - and told in first person like all Burke's stories.

Our next-door neighbors were the Dunlops. They had skin like pig hide and heads with the knobbed ridges of coconuts. The oldest of the five boys was executed in Huntsville Pen; one did time on Sugarland Farm.

The patriarch of the family was a security guard at the Southern Pacific train yards. He covered all the exterior surfaces of his house, garage, and toolshed with the yellow paint he stole from his employer. The Dunlops even painted their car with it.

Like the Robicheaux novels, Burke matches a beautiful city (and these stories are set in Dave's "golden age") with the stain of evil: the loss of innocence, gangs, bullies and child molesters. In these short pieces Burke still takes time to color his bad guys and in doing so elevate them from comic book villains. Vernon Dunlop is a bully - but Vernon is an abused kid, too. Benny "Bugsy" Siegel is struggling to learn the yo-yo from Charlie and Nick. When Vernon Dunlop's dad chases off the Cherrio yo-yo man and busts the favorite nun for drinking, it is Benny Siegel who comes to Charlie's aid. Charlie's "love-interest" is a girl from a New Orlean's mob family - and it's this family that removes the molester from the park.

Two stories feature a former professor, widower, living an isolated life of his choosing on a property abutting a national forest in Montana. (Interestinly, these are not told in the first person voice.) You'd think it was the same guy...but his name changes between stories. Well, he is the same guy. He has an almost indistinguishably different back story, he lives in the same place, and he has a history of his involvement in situations turning, lets say, dark.

Albert starts to tell Joe Bim all of it - the attempt he made on the biker's life, the deed the sheriff's deputy had done to him when he was eighteen, the accidental death of his father, the incipient rage that has lived in his breast all his adult life- but the words break apart in his throat before he can speak them. In the silence he can hear the wind coursing through the trees and grass, just like the sound of rushing water, and he wonders if it is blowing through the canyon where he lives or through his own soul. He wonders if his reticence with Joe Bim is not indeed the moment of absolution that has always eluded him. He waits for Joe Bim to speak again but realizes his friend's crooked smile is one of puzzlement, not omniscience, that the puckered skin on the side of his face is a reminder that the good people of the world each carry their own burden.

Two stories come from people associated with Katrina: "Mist" and "Jesus Out to Sea". In "Mist", Burke's protagonist is an alcoholic, drug abusing woman. In "Jesus Out to Sea" he follows one of his mob guys brothers, Tony aka "Johnny Wadd" from "A Morning for Flamingos", as he and his buddy wait in the rising waters of New Orleans. Wait for rescue.

The color of the water is chocolate-brown, with a greenish-blue shine on the surface like gasoline, escept it's not gasoline. All the stuff from the broken sewage mains has settled on the bottom. When people try to walk in it, dark clouds swell up around their chests and arms. I've never smelled anything like it.

The sun is a yellow flame on the brown water. It must be more than ninety-five degrees now. At dawn, I saw a black woman on the next street, one that's lower than mine, standing on the top of a car roof. She was huge, with rolls of fat on her like a stack of inner tubes. She was wearing a purple dress that had floated up over her waist and she was waving at the sky for help. Miles rowed a boat from the bar he owns on the corner, and the two of us went over to where the car roof was maybe six feet underwater by the time we got there. The black lady was gone. I keep telling myself a United States Coast Guard chopper lifted her off. Those Coast Guard guys are brave. Except I haven't heard any choppers in the last hour.

...This is the Ninth Ward of Orleans Parish. Only two streets away I can see the tops of palm trees sticking out of the water. I can also see houses that are completely covered. Last night I heard people beating the roofs from inside the attics in those houses. I have a feeling the sounds of those people will never leave my sleep...

I was in the US at the time Katrina struck New Orleans and I heard many stories - mostly on the radio, cause I'm mostly a radio (NPR) news person. But, it wasn't until I read this story that I actually felt the horror of the situation. (The same thing is happening now as I listen to Don Delillo's "The Falling Man" about 9-11.) I'm not sure why that is. Is it the personal involvement of the imagination that comes with reading? Is a "story" able to creep around emotional boundaries we (I) erect to protect us from the ugliness of life? Am I aberrant? Maybe it is just the magic that Burke can wield with his words...

You know what death smells like? Fish blood that someone has buried in a garden of night-blooming flowers. Or a field mortuary during the monsoon season in a tropical country right after the power generators have failed. Or the bucket that the sugar-worker whores used to pour into the rain ditches behind their cribs on Sunday morning. If that odor comes to you on the wind or in your sleep, you tend do take special notice of your next sunrise.

No comments: