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Onyx reviews: The
Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Few writers write with such eloquence about terrible actions and desperate
lives. The opening chapters of The Tin Roof Blowdown possess lyrical beauty as
Burke paints tragic portraits of a few ordinary people who suffer tragic
consequences. It's an angry book, but it isn't primarily about Katrina, even
though the book starts shortly before the hurricane strikes the Louisiana coast.
Neither is it about the devastating failure of the levee system around New
Orleans, though James Lee Burke delves into the political, social and personal
effects of the stores and explores the despair of a city that was hit when it
was down and hit again.
What Dave Robicheaux—a man who has seen many dark deeds throughout his life
and during his career in law enforcement in and about New Orleans—knows is that
crime doesn't stop for bad weather, no matter the scale. In fact, there is an
element that flourishes when society falters. In the hours and days after
floodwaters inundate the city, terrified people commit desperate acts. A
priest—Dave refers to him as the centerpiece of his story even though he never
appears onscreen—is murdered for his cheap but serviceable boat. Looters invade
businesses and homes. Rumors of atrocities abound.
Amidst the mayhem, a quartet of hapless thieves picks the wrong place to rob.
At the nicest house in a ritzy neighborhood, the foursome—in their stolen
boat—discovers a prize beyond their limited capacity to dream. Within the walls
of mobster Sidney Kovick's house they uncover a cache of drugs, cash and
something even more valuable. Though this surprise windfall has political
connotations, the stolen items mean little more to the story than an elaborate
McGuffin, something one group of bad guys has that other bad guys want so the
good guys—such as they are—can get caught in the crossfire.
One of Sidney Kovick's neighbors is Otis Baylor, an insurance agent
determined to do right by his clients, approving claims that many others are
delaying or denying. His daughter was raped two years earlier on the night of
her senior prom when her boyfriend's car battery died in a bad neighborhood. In
one of those coincidences that strain credibility in fiction, her assailants are
the same men who loot Kovick's house. On that confusing dark night, a gunshot
rings out. One of the looters is killed and a second is paralyzed. Otis made an
unfortunate racist comment earlier that evening, turning him into the main
Law enforcement agents from around the state are scrambled to help out in New
Orleans. Dave has suffered greatly—he's a widower, recovering alcoholic, foster
father, and Vietnam vet. The storm reminds him of the detestation of war,
reactivates post-traumatic stress and deepens his omnipresent angst. He never
thought he would again see something as bad as the war—but the storm's
destructive force was greater than that of Hiroshima bomb. It's almost enough to
drive him to drink again. When he isn't maintaining the peace, he tries to
ascertain the fate of a fallen and dying priest, a drug addict last seen in the
company of a prostitute.
He's also assigned to the Baylor shooting case. Racial tensions are high, and
the possibility that a white man took lethal action against a black petty
criminal requires a delicate hand. The powers that be in New Orleans have no
desire for a wave of vigilantism. Dave isn't known for his delicacy, but he's
light years ahead of his long-time friend and former partner, Clete Purcel, who
gives bulls in china shops a bad name. Dave and Clete's paths continually cross
with the same people, making post-Katrina New Orleans seem like a small town.
Before the storm struck, Clete was trying to round up a couple of bail skippers,
the same men involved in the rape and the shooting, another link in the
improbable chain of coincidence that mars this book.
Their surprise booty puts the looters in the sights of the owners of the
stolen valuables. Enter Ronald Bledsoe, the type of amoral villain who has
become a cliché in Burke's novels. Bledsoe is a nearly perfect killing machine
operating on his own moral wavelength. He immediately crosses the line with Dave
by approaching his foster daughter Alafair, who is now an adult, a writer
(thereby providing Burke with a mouthpiece to discuss issues important to
writers) and somewhat capable of looking after herself. Alafair takes Bledsoe by
surprise during their first encounter, bloodying him with a lucky move, but Dave
knows that in the long run she's unequipped to deal with such a man.
Unfortunately, Dave's overprotectiveness pushes Alafair to behave recklessly.
Young adults are slow to accept their mortality.
As is his habit, Burke dabbles with the supernatural or the metaphysical,
without offering any explanation. On the night the priest was killed for his
boat, several people witnessed lights in the water. If they are meant to signify
something important, Burke doesn't show his hand.
Burke's books present a dilemma. The man can write circles around many of his
contemporaries, and no one does "deeply flawed" better. The tragedy
that befell the city he so often writes about provides him with a prime
opportunity to say something meaningful. However, he has adopted a number of
writing tics—the sociopathic killer, for example—that lead to a certain sameness
in his stories. Hurricane Katrina would have been a sufficient mindless force
for most other writers, and Burke diminishes the importance of this event by
resorting to one of his clichés.
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