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Visions in a Cajun Fog : IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD: By James Lee Burke : (Hyperion: $19.95; 344 pp.)

April 18, 1993|Fred Schruers | Schruers is living in New Orleans, completing a nonfiction book to be published by Pocket Books

Subordinated to Robicheaux's multifaceted anguish are two murder investigations. One involves a mutilated 19-year-old local girl. The other--and this one has haunted Robicheaux in earlier books--he saw at a distance in July of 1957, at age 18, when a black man was chased down and slain "deep in the Atchafalaya marsh." Amazing to say, Elrod Sykes chances upon the victim's skeleton as the film company films in the swamp.

Such coincidences are for meta-fictions, and hardly the stuff of the Burke many have come to treasure. Robicheaux's unblinking grittiness is still here. In "Neon Rain," he might have a vision of bodies in the Mekong and his drowned father under an oil rig--but only after being choked in a tub by bad guys. Over time, the flights are getting fancier. In "Electric Mist" we have soldiers in "gray and butternut-brown uniforms" at one point ushered in by an LSD dosing, followed by a crack of lightning and a car wreck. Leader of this lost Texas Brigade is General Hood-- "Originally from Kentucky. How do you do, suh?" When Robicheaux tells him soon after, "I have no understanding of your words," we're dangerously near kitsch.

"I'm concerned that a lot of contemporary fiction has moved away from the real stuff of American life and history into caricature and allegory," Burke told a questioner years ago. But now Robicheaux is tearing open the naturalistic curtain to admit to seeing "a hopeful figure of my fantasies, a metaphorical and mythic figure." The sounds like Burke, saddling Robicheaux with English-major lines.

It may be churlish to indict the talented and prolific Burke for boldly trying to extend his reach; after all, the fortunate bottom line is that this incarnation of Robicheaux, when not in the mist, carries the franchise's adventure forward. Is this the best of the five books? No, suh. But there's no reason to think the next one won't be.

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