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Last Car to Elysian Fields
by James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 2003
Hardcover, $24.95 (335 pages)
ISBN: 0-7432-4542-3
 
 
 
There are always storms in James Lee Burke’s novels, but the wind and rain and lightning that the author describes in poetic detail is not always looming over the towns and fields; the storms rage through well-drawn, complex, tainted and tormented characters.

The storm that rages -- almost out of control at times -- within the psyche of Dave Robicheaux, the Vietnam veteran, recovering alcoholic, tortured deputy sheriff in a southern Louisiana parish on Bayou Teche whispers and screams, cries, whimpers, and moans, then resonates with a pain that is often hurtful to the reader.

James Lee Burke is an enormously talented writer who has displayed his power annually for the past dozen or so years in such novels as Jolie Blon’s Bounce, Purple Cane Road, and Cadillac Jukebox. At least half of these have centered around Robicheaux, whom many of us have grown to love, respect, admire, and admonish for his great heaping of guilt upon himself and all of those around him.

Now that his beloved Bootsie, his second wife, has been killed in a fire, Robicheaux returns repeatedly to her grave near the banks of the bayou beneath a live oak tree. Once again, in Last Car to Elysian Fields, his friend Clete Purcel, a private investigator who heaps hurt on those who do damage to his buddy and who himself is filled with a different kind of rage that manifests itself in some original ways of payback. After their friend, Father Jimmie Dolan, a particularly unpolitically correst priest, is victim of a brutal assault, the two old buddies confront the man they believe is responsible: drug-dealer and porn-star Gunner Ardoin. However, as in most richly developed Burke novels, what Robicheaux and his buddy believe is not always the entire truth. There are always unsuspected twists and turns, emotional revelations, and big bumps along the highway of life. Likewise with Last Car to Elysian Fields.

The title, referring to the last streetcar to a particular section of New Orleans called Elysian Fields, resonates through the action which is fast and furious in this novel that is peopled with a menagerie of true Burke characters. From the despicable Dellacroce brothers, the IRA gunman named Max Coll who is a cold-blooded killer whose actions turn soft, a blues singer from the past named Junior Crudup whose ghost haunts Robicheaux and forces him to investigate his possible murder a half-century ago, and Theodosha Flannigan, “tall, darkly beautiful, with hollow cheeks and long legs like a model’s, her southern accent exaggerated, her jeans and tied-up black hair and convertible automobiles an affectation that believed the conservative and oligarchical roots she came from.” A former lover of the deputy sheriff, Theodosha becomes a pivotal character in the cast that contains dozens.

As always in a Burke novel, the narrative drive is strong and urgent in Last Car” The descriptive qualities are rich and exuberant. The characters run amuck through a thick fog of crime and deception, death and dishonor, but you always know there is Robicheaux, who is above it all; yet Last Car seems to be a lament of the hero, a kind of last note of  “Taps” that hangs over the swampland of southern Louisiana and vibrates there.


Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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