Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Key to the Vault

Memories of atmosphere, of color, smells and local idiom absorbed in the years of growing up remain invisible on the skin, but are no less indelible in their secret marks. In later years, when many of these imprints have found snug harbor in the subconscious, a sudden breeze stirs the smell of raw lumber, or fried catfish, a passing someone coughs out a thought in the voice and dialect of childhood’s Aunt Tillie, a voice almost forgotten that carries a charge of electricity wrapped in haunting sweetness. The unscheduled outpourings of a moment from childhood follow no rule book and for their rarity are all the stronger when they do slow your step or turn your head. Leaving the people and setting of childhood soon after high school plants a seed of yearning that pushes its way to the surface in later years. In some cases, if lucky, you may discover a peephole into the music and flavors of the past, a magic wardrobe or rabbit hole you can step through to walk the old corridors of home, and replay some of the fragments that lay half submerged under the years.

My reservoir of youthful memories is probably no deeper than the next person’s, but the indelible markings of time and place were stirred for nineteen years into a gumbo of impressions defined by Louisiana state lines. I spent my first nineteen years in Louisiana. Leaving there, I eagerly shed the trappings of my past, or at least thought and pretended I had. But some things run deep.

James Lee Burke is a popular writer familiar to most readers, a writer whose books are something of a peephole into the milieu of my past. Though born in Houston, Texas, he spent much of his childhood in New Iberia, Louisiana, fifty miles southwest of my hometown. Burke has written a series of eighteen books set in New Iberia, revolving around a character named Dave Robicheaux. More than any other writer, he has the combination that unlocks the sights and voices from the vault of my Louisiana past.

At this stage in his writing life, no one doubts the gift of Burke, and even those who might not like his hard boiled crime stories and their sudden violence will not for a moment question his skill as a writer. There are times and passages where I want to memorize a sentence for its sheer, uncomplicated beauty. One sentence from his book, Last Train to Elysian Fields offers a good example…

‘The wind riffled through the oak and pecan trees overhead, and a group of children on their way to the library rode by on bicycles, laughing, the streetlights glowing in the dampness like oil lamps in a Van Gogh painting.’

Burke gives great credit for his development as a writer to his first English professor at Southwestern Louisiana College, Lyle Williams, who once said to Burke, ‘Your penmanship, Mr Burke, is like an assault upon the eyeballs. Your spelling makes me wish the Phoenicians had not invented the alphabet, but you write with such heart, I couldn’t give you an F.’

A story Burke tells about his writing and efforts to get published is interesting. His 1986 novel, The Lost Get Back Boogie was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize—after nine years and 111 rejection slips.

I continue to go back to Burke’s novels because they stir in me memories of where I came from, bringing back the voices and colors of childhood. While it is true that many of his stories take place on ‘the soiled edges of society’ and describe a ‘spiritual cancer,’ it is hard to do other than praise the way he lays down a line, or twists a phrase that so perfectly defines a character or colors a voice. If you haven’t already, do read a book or two by James Lee Burke.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America