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A Bond With the Bayou : Author James Lee Burke struggled to make ends meet. Then he tapped into the land of his youth and created his Cajun hero.


San Francisco is James Lee Burke's kind of city. His novels evoke grimacing bottleneck blues guitar or reckless washboard Cajun. But the solo sax haunting Union Square suits him too.

So do the city's eccentrics: a sidewalk beggar whose gimmick is a gray cat in a green sweater; a homeless man venting his voices into the night; a surf dude cabby who turns a five-minute fare into a manic diatribe.

Burke exits the cab wearing a grin that suggests he just absorbed another character. But something else in his face--common decency?--hints at a reason more and more readers wait patiently to see how the author might re-create such men.

It's the sort of expression that might cross the face of Dave Robicheaux, the fictional "Cajun existentialist" detective who resurrected Burke's career and stirs a growing sense that the author or his creation or perhaps a composite of the two is emerging as a bona fide literary icon.

The morning after a spate of San Francisco book signings, Burke is on the road again, heading for Los Angeles on a 12-city tour to promote his new novel, "Cadillac Jukebox" (Hyperion). His wife, Pearl, navigates from a cardboard box of AAA maps.

At first, the author resisted the idea of a reporter tagging along. No wonder. Burke is a compulsive storyteller, and when he talks, he disappears into the yarn.

Before we clear Oakland he has missed three turnoffs.

"I'm not going to talk," he says resolutely, his eyes scanning a confusion of freeway signs. But then some thought hitchhikes across his cortex, and he's off again, his life blending into his fiction, his fiction into politics and history and music and American literature in a gracious, nonstop conversational stream.

Burke was born 59 years ago in Houston, and was reared there and along the coast nearby, in Louisiana's bayou country. He wrote his first novel, "Half of Paradise," when he was 23--the same year he married Pearl, a Chinese-born flight attendant for a Flying Tiger Airlines affiliate whom he met in a graduate seminar on Wordsworth at the University of Missouri.

The New York Times praised that first bleak book's trio of characters--a black boxer, a white aspiring bootlegger and a young country singer turned cocaine addict--and called Burke "a writer to be taken absolutely seriously."

He went on to publish two more novels, one about a 16-year-old Kentucky coal miner, the other about a Texas oilman turned politician and the United Farm Workers.

Then he began collecting rejection slips. By the time he published another hardback, 13 years later, he had four children and a resume that reflected his determination to support them: surveyor in Texas and Colorado; U.S. Forest Service driver in Kentucky; social worker on Los Angeles' Skid Row, along with college teaching stints in Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, Florida, Kansas and Montana.

Burke's literary reputation began to rekindle in 1986 with "The Lost Get Back Boogie." That novel, about an ex-con songwriter caught up in a Montana environmental battle, had been rejected more than 100 times in nine years. It received a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

It was the year before, though, that Burke nudged his finances onto a slow road to fortune by publishing his first crime novel, "The Neon Rain."

Burke had never read crime fiction. "I still don't know diddly squat about it," he says.

But he was sufficiently fond of his new protagonist, the recovering alcoholic and soon-to-be bait-shop owner Dave Robicheaux, that he has produced eight more books so far.

The latest Robicheaux tale, "Cadillac Jukebox," is typical of the series. Robicheaux pokes around in a crime that somehow connects to a whopping societal woe--in this case, the long past murder of an African American civil rights hero and the pervasive effects of historical racism and political corruption.

Robicheaux, says Burke, is "the egalitarian knight-errant, the Jeffersonian man. Decent. Kind. He is always on the side of those who have no voice or power."

Along the way, the detective grapples with a variety of cretinous characters and with cantankerous demons of his own, proving, again, that life apportions evil in abundance throughout the human family.

Such ambition in genre fiction does not go unnoticed.

Two years ago, a Time magazine critic sniffed that Burke "suffers from a terrible and mostly undeserved reputation for fine writing."

Meanwhile, the series is sufficiently popular, and has attracted enough movie-option action, that the Burkes now divide their time between a big cedar house outside Missoula, Mont., and New Iberia, La., where they are building a home on Bayou Teche--the childhood stomping grounds of both Burke and Robicheaux.

Back when Burke reemerged in print, he and Pearl began a ritual, packing up their Chevy Chevette and driving cross-country to readings and book signings they'd set up themselves.

The short version of why Burke still drives on tour (putting 12,000 miles on the car during last year's 30 city swing) is simple: "I don't like to fly."

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