Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

In James lee Burke’s 16th Dave Robicheaux novel, the author and his creation deal with the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and the abandonment of the city’s poorest citizens by the local, state and federal government.

As Katrina strikes, Robicheaux and the rest of the New Iberia Parish sheriff’s department are dispatched to the Big Sleazy to offer aid. As a result, Robicheaux becomes entangled in a case involving a middle-class white couple suspected of shooting a black looter in the storm’s aftermath. The looters broke into the home of one of the city’s biggest mobsters, a man who is rumored to have used a chainsaw to cut off the legs of the driver who accidently killed his small son. As in all of Burke’s crime novels, the resolution of the case isn’t as important as the arc of the characters and Burke’s observations on class, crime and social injustice.

In The Tin Roof Blowdown, Burke’s anger over the way Katrina and New Orleans were handled by our government is so palpable it nearly sears the eyes of the reader. With disbelief, he chronicles the rapidity of the city’s collapse into barbarism. At one point Robicheaux observes, “We saw an American city turned into Baghdad.”

Burke’s writing has never been more moving, as in this passage describing Katrina’s victims: “They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquemines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead. They died in hospitals and nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest.”

Through Robicheaux, Burke finds plenty of blame to spread around, including the enduring theme of this series: “The old southern nemesis was back, naked and raw and dripping -- absolute hatred for the poorest of the poor.”

The only part of the novel that didn’t work for me was the subplot involving a defrocked Catholic priest, a junkie who apparently died while trying to free hurricane survivors from the attic of a church. His story feels unresolved. Since much of Katrina’s aftermath also remains unsettled, perhaps this is fitting.

While I’ve enjoyed all of Burke’s work, this entry in the Robicheaux series is the most focused
and hard-edged in years. Dave Robicheaux’s endless reservoir of rage finally has a worthy foe.

After reading The Tin Roof Blowdown, you may feel you do, as well.

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