The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Faulkner of The Crime Novel

If you haven't read James Lee Burke but have an interest in mystery & crime fiction, you have one of the more pleasurable experiences in contemporary literature waiting for you.

Burke was born in Houston in 1936 and was raised in Houston and southern Louisiana. Between then and now he earned a master's degree in English and journalism and worked variously as a petroleum landman, a social worker, a surveyor, and a college English teacher and survived alcoholism. Along the way he acquired a Chinese-American wife named Pearl and sired four high-achieving children including his daughter Alafair who is both a law professor and a published crime novelist. He and his wife, who have been married forty-eight years, divide their year, living in homes in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana.

Two of his crime novels have been made into movies: Heaven's Prisoners (with Alec Baldwin & Mary Start Masterson), and In The Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, which starred Tommy Lee Jones & Mary Steenburgen. Both Baldwin and Jones played Dave Robicheaux, Burke's conflicted, alcoholic Cajun deputy sheriff/protagonist.

And those are the bare bones of the man's life, other than the fact that he holds a record of sorts: his novel, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was rejected by one hundred and eleven separate and distinct publishers only to be brought out at last by Louisiana State University Press. Six months after its inception, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, thus proving that the American publishing industry is largely run by idiots.

I will not belabor the issue other than to say that in his Robicheaux books, Burke paints a picture of a place (southern Louisiana) and a people unlike anything else ever seen in print. He also has a second series, the Billy Bob Holland books, whose protagonist, Holland, is a retired Texas Ranger-turned lawyer. While they are well worth reading and very entertaining, it is the Robucheaux series that his magnum opus. Burke has attracted a wide readership outside the world of literature and has been the subject of laudatory newspaper pieces by such diverse figures as noted University of South Carolina history professor Clyde Wilson, the editor of the John C. Calhoun papers, and political columnist Charlie Reese. Reese's piece can be found here.

Each of the Robicheaux books can be read independently without reference to the earlier volumes for background. However, they are best read in order because great changes occur in the protagonist's life. This snippet from Jolie Blon's Bounce will give you some idea of the man's style:

"I wanted to drive deep into the Atchafalaya Swamp, past the confines of reason, into the past... on the tree-flooded alluvial rim of the world, where the tides and the course of the sun were the only measures of time and all you had to do was release yourself from the prison of restraint, just snip loose the stitches that sewed your skin to the hairshirt of normalcy."
A complete list of Burke's works can be found at his website here.

A couple of years after 9/11, the ancient and venerable magazine The Nation asked several American writers for articles on their home states. Burke's contribution can be found here, and it will give you some idea of the magic this man can do with words.
If you like crime novels or just love good strong Southern fiction, I urge you to give him a try.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

William Shakespeare, Pulp Writer

If that title didn't get your attention, I don't know what would. But Shakespeare was, in many respects, a pulp writer, and he was, in most respects, a commercial writer.
He wrote to make money. Which goes hand-in-glove with a point I want to make.

The facts of Shakespeare's life are too readily available to repeat them here. Suffice to say that he was a professional actor who owned part of a theater company that operated in a very competitive environment. Apparently he thought that he could do better than the plays commercially available, and about 1590 he began
to write. And make no mistake: all his plays were written for a popular audience. Not only that, he often padded his texts to increase their length. London theater audiences were very volatile, and could riot and damage a theater if they did not think they were getting their money's worth. To this end, Shakespeare included plenty of bawdy comedy, outlandish fight scenes, grotesque puns, obscene buffooneries, spilled blood and limitless gore--in short, all the Ramboesque departures from "good taste" the movies are accused of today.

My point being that the greatest writer in the English language was very much a part of the entertainment industry and that he wrote for a popular audience. And he was subject to much of the same same sort of derisive criticism one hears of Hollywood in modern times. In Shakespeare's day, snobbish young Oxbridge pecksniffs used to come out to the London theaters to laugh at how the "ignorant" playwrights of the era violated the dramatic "unities." Why, everyone knew that the action of a tragedy had to take place in the space of a single day! The great Aristotle had said so! I'm sure Shakespeare was laughing all the way to the bank. He invested wisely and retired wealthy, and along the way gave us some of the greatest poetry ever to grace our language.

These days, in this country at least, there exists a vast divide between those books that are considered literary fiction and those that are dismissed as "popular" entertainment. This was not always the case. At least up through the early 1960s, our best literary writers had a wide audience and it was not uncommon for books by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck to be found on the bestseller lists.

This began to change in the 1960s. I believe part of the reason for this was the vast influx of the Boomer generation into colleges. Prior to this time, a writer had to cultivate a fairly wide readership in order to make any money or get any recognition. With the rapid growth in the size of college classes, and with state universities quadrupling their enrolments in this decade, it became possible for a writer to have a captive audience of students who were required to buy his books merely by pitching his work to the academic critics who determined what was read in college courses.

Then there was the rising popularity of the avant garde with popular, wide circulation magazines like Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker in which such pretentious frauds as Susan Sontag whooped it up for inaccessible writers like William Burroughs, Antonin Artaud, and Andre Robbe Grillet. The obscure became the darling plaything of the so-called literary intelligentsia while storytelling fell by the wayside as archaic and vulgar hangovers from an earlier and less enlightened era. Along about the same time and for reasons I can't begin to understand, some of our best writers turned their talents away from fiction and moved toward what can only be called impressionistic journalism. An example of this is Truman Capote. One of the last books by a major literary writer that I can recall that achieved blockbuster status was his In Cold Blood, a novel-like account of a brutal quadruple Kansas murder and its aftermath that was greeted as a "non-fiction novel." Capote himself hyped this work as a new type of reportage, which he, with characteristic pomposity, pronounced in the French fashion as "rey-por-tage." Since the death of the author, who was a pathological liar of the first water, it has come to light that several of the key scenes and conversations he recounted in his published narrative never occurred. In short, Capote left us with a sort of literary morphodite that is neither true crime nor truly fiction. It is, however, a thrilling and brilliant account that is well worth reading, whatever it is. But In Cold Blood was the beginning of a trend followed by many of our other best writers, including Norman Mailer (The Executioner's Song, Oswald's Tale) and Don DeLillo (Falling Man, Libra), in which the authors wrote fiction-like accounts of true events in a way that blended the subjectivity of literature with the objectivity of newspaper reporting. This has, in my opinion, been a destructive trend in many ways for much fine talent has been wasted in areas where it should not have been spent.

Then came literary critics like Derrida, Foucalt, le Man and others, and with them came the critical schools of postmodernism, deconstructionism, textual analysis, and on and on. These preposterous oafs all sought, in one way or another, to prove that (A.) nothing means anything in literature & (B.) all past literary efforts had been the tools of oppression directed toward the downtrodden of the world. Yes. that's right, friends and neighbors: Shakespeare/Faulkner/Hemingway/Cather/et al. weren't writing to entrance and entertain; they were writing to oppress women, blacks, gays, Muslims, Moors, lesbians, Amerindians, Africans, Tasmanians, Blogdovians, Wachovians, Malmutes, Tasmutes, Transmutes, Piutes, Flems, Waloons, and bridge players--just take your pick from a bulging, K-Mart grab-bag of late 20th century trendy victimology. It seems strange to me that people drawn to the study of literature would spend their lives trashing the very writers one would think they should love. But taking human nature into account, I suppose it is no great wonder that we enjoy a surplus of the bright-eyed and ambitious who would eagerly fellatiate a baboon in Macy's window if it would earn them a little attention or help them build a career. Such is the state of utter whoredom one finds in the world of contemporary literary studies.

So is literature dead? Far from it, according to several college English teachers of my acquaintance. However, they tell me that the truly vital work these days is to be found in genre literature---crime novels, science fiction, erotic romance, etc., and they expect a rebirth of true quality any day now. So in the interregnum, get yourself some James Lee Burke, Robert A. Heinlein, or Melinda M. Snodgrass. Meanwhile, for those of you who can afford the airfare, Hamlet is playing this spring at the restored Globe Theater in London---as it still is here and there all over the world.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beyond The Last Divide

Texas Ranger Captain John R. Hughes (1855-1947) at the far right---the model for Zane Grey's Lone Ranger.

One might ask what a Texas Ranger Captain has to do with literature. Bear with me, for good writing is where you find it.

John Hughes was born in Illinois and came to Texas on his own when he was about fifteen after having been a horse trader in the Indian Territory. In 1886 a gang of rustlers stole several horses from his own and neighboring ranches. Hughes tracked the men for two months and recovered the horses after killing two of the thieves. This exploit earned him the attention of Ranger Ira Aten. The next year, Aten asked Hughes to help him track down Judd Roberts, a brutal convicted murderer who had escaped from the authorities in Central Texas. When the pair accosted Roberts in Kansas, a gunfight ensued and Roberts was killed. That fall Aten succeeded in convincing Hughes to join the Rangers, an association that was to continue until his retirement in 1915.

By 1893 Hughes had risen to sergeant in Company D of the famed Frontier Battalion, Late that same year he was promoted to head the company after the murder of its captain, Frank Jones. In 1901 the Frontier Battalion was abolished and the Ranger Force was reorganized into four companies. Hughes was appointed once more to head Company D, which was to be headquartered in Brownsville in deep South Texas and had the task of patrolling the Texas/Mexican border. A quick study, he soon became fluent in Spanish and cultivated an extensive network of informants on both sides of the Rio Grande. He also had good relationships with the Mexican police, and it was during the early years of the 20th century that he became know on both sides of the river as the "Border Boss." Historian Bill O'Neal, in his authoritative Encyclopedia Of Western Gunfighters, credits Hughes with eight official killings in the line of duty. I suspect that there were more. On several occasions he vanished into Mexico with murder warrants on American criminals who had fled across the border, only to reappear some weeks later with no official report ever filed.

He was known as an easygoing man with a robust sense of humor and was very popular with the men under him. He always cautioned his men to use prudence and common sense. His favorite maxim was said to be, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." I suspect that the modern-day Ramboesque school of law enforcement exemplified by John Wayne/Sylvester Stallone movies would have disgusted him.

After the 1901 reorganization, Rangers were required to make a formal report for each complaint they received. Around 1903 Hughes got a telegram telling him that some ruffian was hoorawing the town up at Eagle Pass and the local authorities couldn't handle him. Eagle Pass was quite a ways upriver, and the trip took several days. When Hughes returned, he made what is probably the most famous police report in Texas history. I can see him in my mind's eye sitting at an old-time roll-top desk, writing with the stub of a pencil by the dim light of a kerosene lamp. Down at the lower corner of the form the Rangers were provided was a blank marked "Disposition," which meant how was the complaint disposed of---arrest, etc. Perhaps it was Hughes' famous sense of humor that lead him to do what he did with this space. Or perhaps he really thought the word "Disposition" referred to the subject's temperament. At any rate, this is what he wrote:

"Mean as hell. Had to kill him."

Given the context, if that isn't literary, I don't know what would be.

Captain Hughes never married, though he was engaged in his early years. His fiance died of typhoid fever in one of the periodic epidemics of that terrible disease that swept through the country in the 19th century. Each year, on what would have been their wedding day, he traveled back to Rockport to put flowers on her grave.

Somewhere along in his later life, Hughes penned what I consider the only example of cowboy/frontier verse that rises to the level of literature. I say that because, unlike the authors of so much of what passed for poetry in the western anthologies of that era, Hughes didn't strain for high-toned imagery and Homeric metaphor. Instead, he wrote four simple lines that embody the authentic thoughts of an authentic man of this time and place.

"When my old soul hunts range and rest
Beyond the last divide,
Just plant me in some strip of West
That's sunny, lone and wide.
Let cattle rub the headstone round;
Let coyotes wail their kin
Let horses come and paw the mound,
But don't you fence it in."

In 1947, suffering from a half dozen disorders and wracked with pain, yet still too tough to die, Hughes took his own life with the same old single action Colt he'd used to dispatch so many desperados. His funeral was held on a fine, sunny day in late spring. The old man was the last of the frontier Rangers, and his passing marked the end of an age. As might be expected, the services attracted a considerable crowd. And as might also be expected, the politicians flocked round his coffin and said all the Rotarian things that politicians say at such times. After the long-winded tributes were finished, he was laid to rest in the State Cemetery in Austin, which is surrounded by a tall fence of iron bars.