Review: James Lee Burke's 'The Glass Rainbow' tells familiar story of corruption in Louisiana

Ever since he began publishing his bestselling novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux back in 1987, author James Lee Burke has been writing about the natural beauty of the bayou country.

He's also been writing about the human greed and corruption that have wreaked havoc on that beauty, so the BP oil disaster comes as no surprise to him.

"The real story goes back for decades," Burke says. "I've been writing about it for decades, and so have others."

Although Burke's terrific new novel, The Glass Rainbow, was completed well before the disaster occurred — it was published this month — it has at its heart crimes related to the petrochemical industry that dominates Louisiana's coast.

"It's an allegorical story about people who traded off an Edenic paradise for short-term gain," Burke says.

Speaking by phone from his ranch near Lolo, Mont. — he and his wife, Pearl, live there and in New Iberia., La. — Burke says he also wanted to tell a much less publicized story in this book.

"There have been eight unsolved homicides of women in Jefferson Davis Parish. They happened between 2005 and 2009 and remain unsolved.

"I was troubled by the general indifference shown them. You can Google 'Jefferson Davis Parish homicides' and find them; you can also see the lack of journalistic attention to them."

The murder victims were young women of several races, some of them prostitutes or drug abusers, their bodies dumped in canals or on roadsides.

Burke says, "I was a newspaper reporter myself. I'm not criticizng the media. It's the nature of the beast. These women were poor, they had no power."

In The Glass Rainbow, the iconoclastic Robicheaux does care about victims like those women. He also finds himself going up against people who do have power, including Kermit Abelard, scion of a wealthy local family, who is dating Robicheaux's daughter, Alafair.

Kermit is a novelist, and Alafair is writing her first novel. She sees a man who offers to help her get published, but Robicheaux sees a man considerably older than his daughter, a man who strikes him as predatory.

Kermit also has a close friend Dave really gets a bad vibe from: Robert Weingart, a former prisoner turned celebrity author whom Burke calls "probably one of the worst guys I ever wrote about." But Dave's attempts to coax Alafair out of her relationships with the two men just make her resentful.

Burke's fans have watched Alafair grow up in the novels about Robicheaux. They may also know that one of Burke's four children is a daughter named Alafair, a professor of law at Hofstra University who has published six mystery novels.

Burke, who is 73, says he drew on his own experience in writing about the father-daughter relationship. "Dave has all the qualms, the fears that any father has in raising a daughter.

"Any father who looks back at the time his daughter was between the ages of 13 and 17 knows he aged probably about 30, 40 years in that time."

He quotes another of his series characters, Texas lawyer Billy Bob Holland, as saying bringing up a daughter is easy — it's just like "being roped and drug up and down the stairs three or four times a day."

Empire builders

Burke says that he hasn't been back to his home in Louisiana, in the Bayou Teche area where Robicheaux also lives, since the oil began gushing. "But I'm sure it will get there. We'll all be dealing with this for years and years."

In The Glass Rainbow, Dave recalls the death of his father, Big Aldous Robicheaux, in a blowout preventer failure very similar to the one that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig. Burke based it on a real accident that he covered as a reporter in 1964. "We haven't learned much," he said.

Burke worked as a landman and pipeliner for an oil company as a young man and says he lays no blame on the people who work on the rigs and elsewhere in the oil industry. "They're maybe the most stoic, physically brave people I've ever known."

He recalls the oil workers he knew years ago: "They were like Roman legionnaires. They'd arrive on a freight train, and a couple of months later they'd all be driving Cadillacs. Then six months later they'd be dead broke."

He laughs. "They had no last names, just initials. They were irresponsible in the best possible way. It's like Eric Hoffa said: These were the guys who built empires."

He does blame the people who run the empire: "BP has a long history of this kind of behavior, of being exceptionally bad about cutting corners."

He says that since 2000, BP and other oil companies had systematically weakened regulation of their industry. "The oil industry has pulled off a tremendous coup, and we're going to be paying for it for a long time."

Burke says, "Their worst crime was providing misleading information to the regulatory agencies after the blowout. The figures they provided were incredibly inaccurate at a time when information was everything."

Deception is a major theme in The Glass Rainbow, as Robicheaux and his longtime best friend, Clete Purcell, pursue the truth. It leads them and those they love to perhaps the greatest peril they've ever faced — and that includes fighting in Vietnam and working as homicide detectives in New Orleans.

"This book is about the end of an era; this book broods upon mortality," Burke says.

"Going into our eighth decade, we realize we're not any more wise. Maybe a little more patient. But we're not doing anything differently."

Burke says that what Robicheaux, a man so haunted by the past he has seen its specters walk on more than one occasion, comes to realize is "there's only one reality, and that's today. Death doesn't seem to be so intimidating.

"That's about the only lesson I've learned."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at bancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Glass Rainbow

By James

Lee Burke

Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, $25.99

An excerpt from The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke

I tried to imagine the makeup of the person or persons who had murdered the two girls. I was sure that sex and misogyny were involved. But I was also sure that finance was as well. And when it came to the big score in Louisiana, from World War II to the present, what was the issue? Always? Without exception? I mean take-it-to-the-bank, lead-pipe-cinch, what extractive opportunity in an instant created the sounds of little piggy feet stampeding for the trough?

How about oil? Its extraction and production in Louisiana had set us free from the economic bondage to the agricultural oligarchy that had ruled the state from antebellum days well into the mid-twentieth century. But we discovered that our new corporate liege lord had a few warts on his face, too. Like the Great Whore of Babylon, Louisiana was always desirable for her beauty and not her virtue, and when her new corporate suitor plunged into things, he left his mark.

Review: James Lee Burke's 'The Glass Rainbow' tells familiar story of corruption in Louisiana 07/24/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 4:46pm]

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