Proletarian Heroes in James Lee Burke’s Roebicheaux Stories
A few months ago I finished reading one of James Lee Burke‘s recent novels, The Glass Rainbow. Burke is one of my favorite mystery writers. He has written a series of novels featuring the anger management challenged Dave Roebicheaux. They are almost always set in the swamps and bayous of Cajun Louisiana east of Lake Charles. The weather, terrain and history of that part of the US allows Burke to indulge his ability to weld atmosphere and description into paragraphs of mystical beauty.
In between the poetry, his stories concern Dave, an ex-NOPD cop, ex-alcoholic with a couple of ex-wives murdered usually in retribution for his and his best friend, the whale like, elephantine (with a genetic predisposition to dressing badly*) Clete Purcell, another ex-NOPD cop and practicing alcoholic, inflicting pain and mayhem and retribution of their own on the miscreants in their neighborhood during their homo-erotic adventures (Although there is not the slightest evidence of anything more between Dave and Clete than extreme example of male bonding, they do end up this particular novel in each others arms under somewhat ambiguous circumstances).
Now, violent vigilantism by anyone, especially members of the police force, should set my liberal addled mind trembling with disgust. But as usual with American tales of this type, I understand it as a parable of good vs evil and all manner of bloody destruction is acceptable as long as good (or at least order) triumphs.
I recall when I was a kid living with my grandmother watching movies on television about Hopalong Cassidy (black clothing, pearl buttons, white hat [never falls off] clean-shaven) and other cowboys (white hats [rarely falling off], generally lighter clothing, pearl buttons, impeccably groomed) including my favorite the skinny, diminutive but athletic Bob Steele (jeans and a dark shirt, white hat [falls off a lot], no pearl buttons, clean-shaved) dispatch the bad guys (black clothing, black hats no pearl buttons, usually unshaved). My grandmother, an italian immigrant would watch the mayhem on the screen for a while and comment in her broken english, “I don’t think you should be watching that. It is all about people killing one another. Children should not be seeing that.”
“Grandma,” I would respond. “It’s only make-believe. Anyway it is about the good guys beating the bad guys. That’s good, isn’t it?”
“I don’t see how someone who kills someone else can be a good person” she would respond and walk off shaking her head.
Much of American literature and cinema has featured this moral melodrama centered on killing for a good purpose (remember, in American hands the mystery novel, originally developed as tales about the solving of crimes by generally pacifistic individuals using reason, morphed into parables of brutality and revenge). It was in the 70′s however that Sergio Leone‘s Spaghetti Westerns showed what other cultures saw in the American moral parable; a homicidal maniac killing at random incidentally benefiting people with whom the audience sympathize. The bad guys tended to appear even uglier than their predecessors and as badly shaven, the Hero (Clint) unshaven, poorly dressed (but he still looks cool) and much more handsome than the bad guys (he also rarely loses his hat).
While dealing with the ambiguity of my emotions during the reading of the novel, I suddenly realized something that I had never considered before, Dave and Clete were the quintessential proletarian heroes abandoned by the progressive community during the sixties and seventies. (I bet you never thought that I could turn what I have written so far into a political screed. But, since I so clearly identify with Dave and Clete’s unapologetic obsessive compulsive personalities what more can you expect?))
Our working class heroes (OK Clete is a small businessman, but working class nonetheless. He still would prefer to be a cop), have a deep-seated mistrust of big business, big crime, big government, big religion and anybody in authority. They picture themselves as locked in a battle with them that, despite their occasional success, they will ultimately always lose.
On the other hand they profess all the conservative moral verities of the working class; family, a kind of elemental piety, disdain for those who refuse to work to better themselves. Rough economic liberals as they may have been, they saw the progressives of the sixties and seventies with their interest group politics as the work of bored suburban housewives and the spoiled children of the upper classes. They, these new progressives, lacking any real experience and understanding of poverty, usually pitted the poor against the poor on behalf of those in power, all in the name of equality and nature while pissing on all those symbols, hard work, religion and the like that they, the poor and the working class required for solace in their sense of hopelessness. Working class heroes like Dave and Clete longed for the admittedly mostly male virtues of being left alone to work, take care of their families and make their own way (and yes, get drunk and beat their wives) unhindered by the malicious machinations of the rich and powerful. Coupled with their cynicism that those so advantaged neither cared for nor benefited anyone but themselves, equality was the last thing they wanted.
* I have to confess that ever since I started wearing short pants and flowered shirts, my sartorial resemblance to Clete is uncanny [including the grossly protruding belly.] I however do not wear pork-pie hats, although like Clete at times I sport a Tilly.
- An interview with James Lee Burke, author of The Glass Rainbow and the Dave Robicheaux Novels (blogcritics.org)
- Cannes Classics 2012: Once Upon a Time in America (1984) (wetalkaboutmovies.wordpress.com)
- An Interview with James Lee Burke, Author of The Glass Rainbow and the Dave Robicheaux Novels (seattlepi.com)