Who would reasonably suppose that James Lee Burke, in his 45th year as a published author, would be producing the best writing of his career? Yet that is indeed the case. Last year’s RAIN GODS was one of those rare books that authors at any stage in their career and readers of any genre pray for; his new novel, THE GLASS RAINBOW, somehow surpasses that effort. It’s a work of darkness and beauty shot through with original and unforgettable prose on every page.
THE GLASS RAINBOW marks the welcome return of Dave Robicheaux, Burke’s most popular character and one of the most enduring figures in classic and contemporary fiction. Robicheaux has always been a study in contradictions, a badly damaged and somewhat flawed man who struggles to do good and be better in a very bad world, an individual who is both of the law and outside of it, who moves uneasily through both worlds. In the new novel, Robicheaux is back in New Iberia (following 2008’s dark classic, SWAN PEAK), where twin travails await him, personally and professionally.
Robicheaux’s daughter, Alafair, is now in her 20s, an accomplished law school graduate and a fledgling author. She has taken up with a local resident named Kermit Abelard, an acclaimed novelist in his own right who in turn championed the prison release and writing career of Robert Weingart, a bestselling author who wears his status as an ex-convict as the garb of celebrity. Robicheaux’s cop radar is running in the redline whenever he is within shooting distance of Abelard, but there is little he can do, other than watch and wait (two virtues that, paired up, are difficult for him in any event) for Alafair to discover on her own what Robicheaux intuitively knows.
In the meantime, Clete Purcel, Robicheaux’s longtime friend and occasional cross to bear, involves Robicheaux in a reluctant, off-the-books investigation into the brutal murders of seven women in a nearby parish where Robicheaux’s detective status with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department has little influence and no jurisdiction. One of the women, a 17-year-old honor student, doesn’t fit the pattern of the other victims, yet her death seems tied to theirs. The investigation leads to several individuals who collectively are a waste of skin, from a psychopathic pimp to a strange, off-kilter jailhouse executioner, and, ultimately, back to Robicheaux’s circle where Robicheaux and Purcel face a collective adversary of such power that the self-fashioned Bobbsey Twins from Homicide ultimately find themselves, back to back and side by side, involved in a situation of such dire consequence that they might not walk away undamaged.
The plot of THE GLASS RAINBOW would be reason enough to invest the time involved in its reading. But it is for Burke’s prose that readers buy the ticket, and it is with the prose that Burke surpasses and exceeds his own standards yet again. Look at the first paragraph. It has supplanted the final page of ULYSSES by James Joyce --- a very different passage, to be sure --- as my favorite paragraph of all time. It is a relatively simple scene --- Robicheaux’s morning awakening in a room in Mississippi --- that draws a parallel to St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, covering the territory so perfectly and precisely that readers will feel as if they have fallen into the story and will be gladder for it. Robicheaux is a master at this, as is known by anyone who has picked up any of his books over the years and browsed a few pages at any point.
An example: two years ago, while in Louisiana, I drove down to St. Martinville and traversed the several miles of highway between St. Martinville and New Iberia, an area where the majority of Burke’s Robicheaux stories are set. His descriptions of the area were so precise, with regard not only to physical detail but also to mood and culture, that I felt as if I had dropped into the mythos that he has created, as if somehow (as Robicheaux did, in a sense, in the novel IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD), I had become part of the story. Had I been pulled over by Robicheaux for speeding, I would not have been surprised.
Another moment in THE GLASS RAINBOW: Purcel is speeding down a road in South Louisiana with a six-pack of beer riding shotgun and the perfect song by the perfect performer on the car stereo. I was compelled to stop reading, pull the iPod out, and dial up the tune, listening to it amped to 11 while I finished the chapter. The power and effect of good writing gets no stronger than that. And no, I won’t tell you the song. Buy the book and read it to find out. You will not be sorry.
The ending of the book is an electrifying one, a series of several apocalyptic paragraphs that you will read over and over with every last hair on your body standing at nervous attention. If you are not screaming as you read these last few pages, then you aren’t paying attention. There are hints, deliberate or otherwise, as to what will, or what will not, come next.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 13, 2010