Swamp Cooler

Author James Lee Burke Brings A Taste Of His New Iberia To The Old Pueblo.

By Mary Tutwiler

THE FIRST TIME I met James Lee Burke he was hunched over my dinner table, weeping. Actually, we were all mopping our eyes, reaching blindly for water glasses, hiccuping and gasping with infectious mirth as Burke, unable to finish his tale, helplessly loosed peals of laughter. A consummate storyteller, Burke also constitutes his own best audience.

The author has blazed a tough-guy trail through the swamps of south Louisiana, setting 10 Dave Robicheaux mysteries in his family's home town of New Iberia. His lyric descriptions of this world--circumscribed by the Atchafalaya Basin, Bayou Teche and Vermillion Bay--meld the historic, modern and fictional landscape into a world of spooky natural beauty inhabited by Cajuns who are both canaille (shrewd) and innocent; a world under siege by the violent, the greedy and the corrupt, "the dark players," Burke calls them.

Books Iberia Parish Detective Dave Robicheaux steps in, novel after novel, to protect his community, his family and the country values that are as fragile as the marsh before the maw of a dragline or the punch of a drilling rig.

The Edgar Award-winning novelist sat down at my table because I happen to live in his Aunt Roberta Burke Voorhies' house. More immediately, he's at our table because my husband teaches his nephews and nieces. Burke came to school to give a reading, and my unflappable husband, who's the head of the English Department, nonchalantly invited his guest and a few faculty fans home for dinner.

Nothing in the fridge and James Lee Burke, creator of Detective Dave Robicheaux, coming for dinner?! One panicked phone call later, I thanked my lucky Louisiana stars for the boucherie down the street, appropriately named Dave's, which rolls a mean pork roast with shrimp and rice stuffing. The butcher tossed in a few links of boudin, a fiery local sausage, and some cracklins--suitable fare for Dave, who knows where to stop for the best cooking in town.

Burke walked through my front door wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, scuffed boots and his trademark Stetson. With his round face and brown eyes, he looks like a slightly more weathered version of his cousin, 13-year-old Edmond, who lives across the bayou from my dock. Determined to support his family as well as pursue a writing career, Burke has worked as surveyor, social worker and college teacher all over the West--Texas, Colorado, Missouri, California and Montana--for so many years that the cowboy garb didn't seem out of place on his frame.

There's nothing formal about Burke. He comes on with the friendly gaiety of a golden retriever, a roll in his walk and an accent I can't place: It's made up of a little bit of a lot of places, but it's just right for storytelling. Burke peered into a front bedroom and started right in.

"When my Aunt Roberta was quite old, she would lie in bed here and say she heard children. She called to the cook, told her to bring milk and cookies, the children were hungry. This went on for years."

At that point I got the ghost shivers. This was my bedroom Burke was inhabiting with restless spirits. It turns out that this house was the first kindergarten in New Iberia, and little Roberta Burke along with her husband-to-be, Francis Voorhies, learned their ABC's in the front parlor.

We wandered down the hall to the back door, where he creaked open the screen, looked into the expanse of backyard, and asked, "Where's the gazebo?"

Frissons again. For those familiar with the landscape of Burke's New Iberia, a gazebo located in the backyard of an old cottage on Main Street is where Drew Sonnier drove a nail through her hand in order to implicate bad-guy Joey Gouza in A Stained White Radiance.

A long-time resident of Missoula, Montana, Burke has just finished construction on a bayou-side house in the town that meant home and family to him as he grew up "bouncing around all over the Louisiana and the Texas Gulf Coast," traveling the oil and gas circuit with his parents in the 1950s. The new house is traditional Acadian style, brick, unlike the 100-year-old cypress house Dave inhabits. He's keeping the big house in Montana, but he's sent cartons of books to fill the shelves in his new writing studio, and "Christmas will be on the Teche," he said. Sounds like Burke is moving back home.

"I used to visit my grandparents, Walter and Bertha Perry Burke, every summer," he recalled, looking out at the backyards that roll down to the Teche. "Their house is over there, three doors down. My cousin Andre (Dubus, also a novelist) and I spent a lot of time digging for treasure under the live oaks.

"There was a pair of twin live oaks down by the bayou, where Jean Lafitte used to moor his lugger and have slave auctions," he continued. Legend also has it that Lafitte buried treasure in a black sugar kettle on the spot of the slave auctions. The oaks, Lafitte, and the buried treasure, along with its taint of corruption, show up in Burke's Burning Angel.

"When I was a kid, the whole back yard looked like a mine field. People came up the bayou at night and dug for gold. It used to make my grandfather furious. Of course, Andre and I didn't help," Burke said, breaking into his contagious laugh.

The oaks still stand, towering over Bayou Teche. Burke's fictionalized New Iberia is "an edited form of reality," he says, a fantastic blend of nostalgia for an idealized small town of the '40s and '50s, mingled with both the mayhem and rebop brought to the scene by '90s villains such as New Orleans mafioso Joey "Meatballs" Gouza (from A Stained White Radiance), or the marvelous jive-talking hustler/ex-mercenary Sonny Boy Marsallus (from Burning Angel). But as original and vivid as Burke's bad actors are, the physical world that Robicheaux occupies--main streets and back alleys, bayou and basin, marsh and long sweep of sky--serves equally as a player, forming an environment that shapes the detective's admirable qualities, and brings out the evil in his adversaries.

A dark current runs through all of the Robicheaux novels. "Anyone who takes a position against venal forces invites their wrath," Burke said. "Challenge their power structure and they'll come after you."

The synthesis of fact and fiction Burke conjures has a timeless quality that endears his Robicheaux novels to both locals and literary travelers. "New Iberia has tried to retain what's best, tried to keep historic buildings, ancient trees, cemeteries as the heart of the town," said the author. "I've lived all over the place. New Iberia has southern manners and at the same time is a first-name kind of place."

Author James Lee Burke is the guest of honor at a benefit for the Literacy Volunteers of Pima County. Event includes a booksigning from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 23, at Clues Unlimited, 123 S. Eastbourne. followed by a dinner at 7 p.m. at Nonie's Cajun Restaurant, 2526 E. Grant Road. A short reading will follow. Tickets are $40, $20 of which is tax deductible. Attendance is limited to 35 patrons. Call Clues Unlimited at 326-8533 for reservations and information. TW

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