Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown

The Tin Roof Blowdown The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is packed full. It’s an articulate rant against what Katrina and the federal government did to New Orleans. It’s a meditation on race and class. It’s a procedural. And it’s one more chapter in the Dave Robicheaux series.

If that sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. I admire Burke’s ability to write a sentence, even when – as is probably too often the case here – he uses that skill to offer a thumbnail sketch of a character who will be with us for a chapter or so and then depart. I wish he’d found a way to focus this sooner and more effectively.

The first fifth of the novel recounts the damage Katrina did and works in accounts of a couple of horrifying crimes: an admirable junkie priest who goes missing as he tries to save parishioners, a white family retaining its dignity after the brutal rape of its daughter who feel threatened by potential looters, and a group of young Black men who get fired upon as they try to navigate the waters. That’s just the beginning; it takes a good 50 pages for a clear crime to come into focus and for Robicheaux to assume something like a purpose within the story.

I’m jumping from the first Robicheaux novel to this, the 16th, so it’s hard for me to appreciate it in sequence. Burke is skilled enough to bring us up to speed without dumping too much information at a time, but getting introduced to characters like his daughter and second wife isn’t the same as knowing them. It’s clear their presence raises echoes of what Robicheaux has been through in his other books, but, not knowing those books, they make this one seem all the more cluttered.

Even as a stand-alone book, there are problems of unresolved matters. [SPOILER:] it’s frustrating, for instance, never to learn what happens to the diamonds or to the gang-bangers he arrests early in the novel. There is simply so much going on that Burke can’t quite tie it all together.

That said, there is a good urgency to much of what takes place in the book. Burke’s outrage at what’s happened to his city underlies much of what takes place in the story. Racism works as a real engine here, but not in predictable ways. The central African-American character has to bear the weight of racist suspicion, but he also deserves it for being a despicable and weak man. He works toward a kind of redemption, though, further going against stereotype. The central white victims are neither fully admirable nor truly despicable; they’re humans caught in deep webs of relationships.

If this starts slowly and ends without full resolution, the heart of it is what I expect from a real talent like Burke. It’s a story that explores a darkness at the heart of our contemporary world, a darkness that touches everyone but rarely turns on anything as simple as true evil. No one is innocent, but no one emerges as the real and ultimate villain.

If I get back to Robicheaux, and I very well might, I’ll start back again with the second in the series and move forward.

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