The artist who can offer a moment of transcendence exists in the rarest category of human creativity. They enchant us with magic, and like an illusionist, quietly exit the stage, leaving us to wonder how it all happened. The seeker of the transcendent can hear it in the soaring notes of a John Coltrane saxophone solo, can gaze upon it in the brushstrokes of Botticelli, or contemplate it in the poetry of Walt Whitman. They can also find it in the prose of James Lee Burke.
Burke, a former truck driver, social worker, journalist, and professor, is the author of 40 books. The winner of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, he continues to entertain and enlighten his readers with the tales of Dave Robicheaux, a former New Orleans homicide detective turned New Iberia Parish Sheriff’s detective. He has also written a series of novels about the Holland family in Texas, which includes a Sheriff and criminal attorney, several standalone novels, and two short story collections.
His newest novel, A Private Cathedral, offers a glimpse into the life of Robicheaux in 2001 when a murder investigation forces him to uncover and inspect startling truths about crime, corruption, and the nature of evil itself.
I recently spoke with Burke over the telephone about A Private Cathedral, his work more broadly, and his thoughts about American history and politics.
David Masciotra: A Private Cathedral is a continuation of the adventures of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel. It is a continuation of the ethical eschatology that they explore in those adventures, but there are some new elements. This isn’t the first novel to include the seemingly supernatural, but why, at this point, did you choose to introduce the character of Gideon—a netherworld figure—and deal with evil in a more directly theological and mysterious sense?
James Lee Burke: The last three books, including A Private Cathedral, comprise a trilogy. They tell a story that, I believe, has been in the making in the United States for a number of years. That is the coming of a truly dark figure waiting in the wings. For many years we’ve been messing around fascism. We came close to it with Nixon, and later on we had the Bush administration, which I believe will go down as one of the worst. And now we have Trump. Now, what is the larger story? There are two Americas. One wishes to see the realization of Jeffersonian idealism, and there is another group that would be happy with autocracy at best, dictatorship at worst. I came to this conclusion many years ago when I did some work in Angola Penitentiary recording the inmates and their music. I saw and heard things that convinced me that if we built a place like Auschwitz, there would be plenty who would jump at a chance to work there. I never talk about it in detail. I’ve never directly written about it. I choose not to speak about it, because to do so would give it more power. There is no question about it, though. It is inhumanity at its worst.
As Dave Robicheaux says, I don’t believe that we all descend from the same gene pool. There are people who descend from another group. It isn’t demonstrable, but from what I’ve seen in life, and when I worked as a journalist, I had no doubt about it, that there is a menacing, monstrous group of people among us. There are differences among them, but they are all the same in many ways. One is that they take their secrets to the grave. Another is lack of causality. Analysts have a fling with these types, and they develop theories to explain them—perhaps it is childhood trauma. Yes, many of them experience child trauma, but there is no causality that matches the degree of suffering they inflict upon others.
Conversely, we meet people who almost possess a glow. We know in an instant that they are spiritual people. It is almost as if they have a nimbus around their heads. St. Paul said, “There may indeed be angels in our midst. So, we should be careful how we treat each other.”
We also meet people who seem to signal evil, and with Gideon, I hoped to explore that type of evil presence, and find a way to relate it to our developing history.
David Masciotra: Robicheaux talks about having the same type of experience you describe at Angola. It is profoundly moving passage in the book. There is another scene in a recent novel when Robicheaux leaves a biker bar, and laments, “Those are people who would welcome an American Reich.” There has always been a sociopolitical undercurrent to your work. Of course, some novels emphasize it more than others…
James Lee Burke: All of them have it, though. All of them. I don’t want to compare myself to William Shakespeare, but Shakespearean or Elizabethan drama is all political. I aspire to write in that vein. So much of great art is political, but there is a crucial distinction. Art should not proselytize or become didactic. Once that occurs, the artist transforms into a propagandist.
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The evolution of Dave Robicheaux and the incredible career of James Lee Burke
David Masciotra: I agree with you that all of your work is political. Of course, I’m not in a position to disagree. However, it seems that in the past few years, the political content is more direct, and there is a greater sense of urgency. Is that a fair assessment? If so, why?
James Lee Burke: I believe this is the century that will determine if we survive as a species. That begins with global warming. Then, there is the recreation of colonialism, or what we could call, “neo-colonialism.” We are seeing the resurgence of a menace we thought we had left behind. Nationalism is growing stronger every day. There are white nationalists within the Trump administration, exerting an influence on national policy. The urgency of the threat has permeated into the writing.
David Masciotra: One of the maxims of Dave Robicheaux is that often the most important battles are fought in places no one cares about…
James Lee Burke: Always.
David Masciotra: Always. So, Robicheaux and Clete fight these battles in their own precincts of New Iberia, New Orleans, and on occasion, Montana. What are you trying to point out to readers with these stories in Louisiana that we might otherwise miss in national news coverage?
James Lee Burke: Well, I don’t deliberately use geography or the culture of the American West or Deep South as a vehicle to proselytize the readership. But the story that I have written from my first novel to the present was all based on something that occurred. Something that I know about, or to which I was a historical witness. Nothing I’ve ever written, I feel that I could not defend. I know about it. I heard about it. It is part of history, or someone I know and trust told me about it. So, in telling that story, with no plan, everything I’ve written is allegorical. I never plan ahead what I will write. It is the oddest thing, but I see only two scenes ahead. Also, I often don’t remember having written. So, this is a difficult question to answer. But I don’t think that I am alone. William Faulkner once said that had he never written his novels, someone else would have. All artists know that inspiration is a gift, and that, as incomprehensible as it is, we are not solely responsible for our art. As soon as an artist claims sole ownership of the artistry, he risks losing that gift.
David Masciotra: Not to contradict that interesting answer you just articulated, but you have a rare gift of prose, and even more unique capacity to inject into your prose the stakes of sociology, philosophy, and theology. Rather than ask you to claim sole credit for your prose, given what you just explained, I’ll ask, who are some of the prose stylists who must influenced you, and who are some of the poets? Who helped shape your style?
James Lee Burke: One of the biggest was Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet—his book of notes in addition to his poetry, because he explains, and it helped me understand, what is called the “metaphysical image.” Hopkins resurrected the metaphysical poem from the work of John Dunne and George Herbert. The metaphysical image forces language into a comparison of two things that are actually contrary. There is a George Herbert poem in which he writes, “The light grows cold and hardens on the stone.” Light, of course, cannot grow cold. The comparison, the metaphor, the simile—these are not really metaphors. They are violations—the twisting of two things, forcing them to be similar. To write with metaphysicality is to see through the dimensions, see through the atomic structure of the universe. So, it is to see, and to ask the readers to see, something that the eye cannot see. Another example is Hopkins was on a train. He looked out the window, and he said, “I saw a boy burning a pile of honeysuckle, the flame twisting away into a yellow handkerchief.” Wow! What an image. Ok, in that school of thought, the American who wrote the best prose was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In The Great Gatsby, there is the metaphysical image. The narrator, Nick, walks out of the party at the estate, and everyone is drunk inside. He walks outside into the clear air of the night—“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne of the stars.” Golly! He just took us from a drunken party into the ether, and he did it in half a sentence. So, that is style of writing that influences me, and I hope I pull it off.
David Masciotra: What crime writers exerted some influence on you?
James Lee Burke: Well, not any that I would think of solely as “crime writers.” I’ve never thought in those terms of category. To my mind, every good novel is a mystery. If you know everything about the ending of the book, you might never have an inclination to read it. So, there is an unraveling. Every story must go through an unraveling. I never had much of an interest in police procedurals. I’m not knocking them, but to me the crime novel is actually the noir novel of the 1930s and ‘40s. Those books—and those films—are about the maturing of America, class war, growth of the unions, coming of the mob. It is all the story of America. The biggest influence on me from that era is James T. Farrell, and his stories of Studs Lonigan. He’s not what people call a “crime writer,” but certainly John Steinbeck influenced me. James M. Cain was not an influence on me, but I agree with his view that the best crime novel is not really a crime novel. We can group all of these writers together, because they tell sociological stories. Good books are written with a point of view from the ground up, not the top down.
David Masciotra: I’d like to follow up on something you said earlier regarding the metaphysical image—the bringing together of two disparate elements into one metaphor…
James Lee Burke: You said it better than I did. Keep that line!
David Masciotra: (Laughter) Sure, I’ll save it. Thank you. The principle of the metaphysical image has congruity with a discovery that Robicheaux makes in A Private Cathedral regarding the universality of time and events. He comes to believe that there isn’t a linear sequence of events. Everything is taking place simultaneously. What role does that belief play in A Private Cathedral, particularly with the character of Gideon, and how does that relate to these theological and sociopolitical concepts that you are injecting into the story?“There are things that happen in human history that make us weep. I have no explanation for it, and neither does Dave.”
James Lee Burke: Yes, Robicheaux on several occasions, and particularly in this new novel, indicates that he believes all time happens at once. I got that from my father. My father always believed that time was not sequential. Now, in this case we meet a time traveler—a guy who was an executioner in previous eras. So, the story begins with Dave’s attempt to discover the origins of human cruelty. Of course, that takes him down a dark path. There are things that happen in human history that make us weep. I have no explanation for it, and neither does Dave. We like to act as if we have eliminated certain dark elements of our history, but they are still with us. In other words, a bomb drops on a village from three thousand feet in the air, annihilating everyone below. This is a routine part of what we call “foreign policy.” We don’t give it a thought. We think that we have evolved past the gulags, but the conditions of foreign prisons, like Abu Ghraib, during the Bush administration were not substantively different. We can try to justify it by explaining that the inmates were terrorists and suspected terrorists, and we were protecting innocent Americans. Nonetheless, many things of the so called “past” are still with us. So, in A Private Cathedral, a torturer from the past finds his way into Robicheaux’s life, and it helps us discover that time is not something we can separate into future and past. All the same players, in spirit, are occupying the same places in our lives. It is a very dangerous time, but the irony of the book is that, despite these dangers and the presence of evil, the book is really about salvation.
David Masciotra: Speaking of good versus evil, in the Robicheaux novels, including the new one, good prevails against evil in the short term, but the character and the readers are left with the understanding that the presence of evil remains. Evil is always stalking the night.
James Lee Burke: Yes—Let me quote Dave. He says, “I’ve seen enough evil in the breast of my fellow man that I don’t have to look for other sources.” I believe that, and I don’t know about other potential sources. But this is the first time that I’ve tried to write with an element of fantasy or science fiction, in terms of the time traveler. I don’t know if you’ve read any of the recent biographies of Joan of Arc, but part of my motivation in writing A Private Cathedral was to explore how human beings could be so cruel to a nineteen-year-old girl. How could we do so many cruel things throughout the years?
The story of Joan of Arc is about the cruelty of the Medieval church, but here in present day America, one of the most important developments is the right wing hijacking—if that isn’t too strong of a word—of the Protestant church and my church, the Catholic Church, for its own purposes. It empowers bad guys, and they commit great acts of inhumanity under the banner of God.
David Masciotra: I hesitate to ask you to affix a label on your work, but would you call your literature “Christian” or “Catholic,” given that theology always plays a role?
James Lee Burke: Well, I wouldn’t call it “theological,” because as I said earlier, art should never seek to inculcate belief within the reader. However, I would say that the setting of all my stories is Golgotha. Not in a way that is morbid. Instead, the story of Jesus is about the struggle of the oppressed, the poor. He did not hang around with the Chamber of Commerce. The people around him were the rejects and the outcasts, with few exceptions. Jesus stood up for poor people against the moneychangers, whom he exiled from the church. That was his undoing. That is always in my books. Everything I’ve written includes the story of Golgotha, and also the search for the Grail. That is mythology in the best sense of the word, along with the Arthurian Court. Dave Robicheaux is the egalitarian knight. It isn’t just me, these myths are where all Western Literature comes from.