James Lee Burke, from oblivion to celebrity

April 09, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- James Lee Burke is speaking about gratitude (( and appreciation of good fortune now that, at age 55, his books are finally being read and appreciated. His voice drops to a near-whisper as he talks with slight disbelief about Joyce Carol Oates' rave review of his most recent crime novel, or when he marvels at the splendid mountain setting of his home near Missoula, Mont.

And there's something else to be thankful for: He still knows pain, but he is grateful every day not to be drinking himself to death.

Some of us hide our troubles and misdeeds well; for others, the evidence is seen in the way we walk, or carry ourselves. For James Lee Burke, two decades of pouring down the booze have helped earn him noticeable lines on an otherwise innocent, youthful face, as well as echoes of the shakes in his quiet and gentle voice.

But this is a time of epiphany for Mr. Burke. After years of near-oblivion, his reputation as perhaps the finest crime novelist in the country is being solidified by the publication this month of "A Stained White Radiance," his fifth book featuring the demon-filled but heroic South Louisiana detective Dave


This time, Robicheaux -- who continually battles the twin torments of Vietnam memories and an alcohol problem -- takes on the New Orleans Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood and an ominous David Duke-like character called Bobby Earl.

"Passages of lyric beauty and passages of explicit horror make it vintage Burke," Ms. Oates wrote of "A Stained White Radiance" in the Washington Post. Still, while James Lee Burke is most appreciative of this and other recognition, come this June something more important will take place. He and some friends in Alcoholics Anonymous -- he calls it "the Fellowship" -- will celebrate his 15 years of not drinking from the cup.

No more does he load up at liquor stores after work in preparation for the night. No longer does he experience indignities like the time his 16-year-old son had to help him lie down after a mid-afternoon drunk that came on the heels of a monstrous all-nighter. It got so bad that Mr. Burke, who can be remarkably candid discussing his former problems with alcohol, asks an interviewer not to mention some particularly memorable escapades, "because my family has suffered enough.

"You can have all the friends you want when you're in talcotton," Mr. Burke says while sipping orange juice in a Washington hotel during a recent publicity tour. "But the people who count are the ones who found you when you were having a hard time and stuck with you."

The hard times included not only the drinking, but also a 13-yeaperiod in the 1970s and early '80s, when Mr. Burke's books, all literary fiction, were habitually rejected by publishers -- "flung back at my head," he says now.

It was not what he had expected. His first novel, "Half of Paradise," was published in 1965, when he was 28, to strong reviews ("A solid debut for a writer to be taken absolutely seriously," the New York Times wrote.) Born in Houston in a middle-class family ("a lot of people in my family write, or are teachers or lawyers"), he had put pen to paper early.

His first cousin is the noted short story writer Andre Debus and, prodded by his example, Mr. Burke began writing poetry in high school and short stories at Southwestern Louisiana University. He taught writing at five colleges and held innumerable other jobs, including working the Louisiana oil fields and being a social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, but he always wrote.

"I thought I had a great deal of success. I had had two books published by the time I was 34," he says in his evocative South Louisiana accent, which transforms "help" into "h'ep," "oil fields" into "all fields" and, of course, "New Orleans" into "New Awlins." "I had published several short stories and things looked great. But then it took 13 years for me to be published in hardback."

One book -- "The Lost Get-Back Boogie" -- was rejected by nearly 100 publishers over nine years before it was published in the mid-'80s. His short stories continued to find homes in such prestigious magazines as The Atlantic, but he began to wonder if any more of his novels would ever be published.

"I tried everything," Mr. Burke says. "I don't know how many novels I wrote during that period that I couldn't sell. It was very frustrating and discouraging. A buddy finally suggested I write crime novels, since I had tried everything else."

Mr. Burke chose South Louisiana, where he had grown up, as the locale -- "It's one of the most interesting places in the world and it's a unique place because much of the past is still alive there." He wrote a couple of chapters with a violence-prone, alcoholic and crusading New Orleans homicide policeman named Robicheaux as the hero and sent them to an old friend, the late and great crime novelist Charles Willeford, with whom he had taught for nine years at Miami-Dade Junior College.

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