James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 2008
In spite of what James Lee Burke may have intended, Montana is not a character in this book but a soap-box:
That’s the voice of Detective Dave Robicheaux. Our hero, who has absolutely no personality, is just a cowboy bobble-head. He’s meant to be complex, a tortured individual who’s wise and wise enough not to think so, a religious man, a Vietnam vet, a sober alcoholic, and a talented police officer. The reader is told all this, repeatedly, but when we see Robicheaux in action, which is not often, he is slow-witted and prone to declarations of intended violence (rarely acted upon), he stumbles into situations that should be fatal, and dully preaches his grotesque oversimplifications. Here’s his take on California: “If you ask me, California is a big commode overflowing on the rest of the country.” So things don’t “flush” in California, either.
Dave Robicheaux’s partner, Cletus “Clete” Purcel, is an alcoholic who hasn’t stopped drinking, is also a vet, is fat, drives a Cadillac, has the ability to turn lesbians straight, and is always, always an asshole. Robicheaux waxes poetic:
For Clete, life was a carnival, a theme park full of harlequins and unicorns, a reverse detox unit for people who took themselves too seriously or thought too much about death. …he had lived the ethos of the libertine and the happy hedonist, pumping iron to control his weight, eating amounts of cholesterol-loaded food that would clog a sewer main, convincing himself vodka Collins had little more influence on his hypertension than lemonade.
During this all, he had never showed pain and had never complained…. How could one refuse life inside a Petrarchan sonnet, particularly when it was offered to you without reservation or conditions by a divine hand?
Living inside a Petrarchan sonnet? What does this mean? Elsewhere in Swan Peak Burke tells us that another character is living in a sonnet, though in this second instance, he doesn’t specify what kind of sonnet. I guess it plumb don’t matter.
And by the way, Clete does complain, he complains all the time.
Then there’s Albert Hollister. He’s a writer. No, a real writer. We actually get to see him write a short story, we get to go inside his head while he’s imagining stuff. But don’t worry: as with all the heroes in Swan Peak, Albert is a real man, not a wussy-pants academic. He “stacked time,” i.e. was in prison (for a crime that wasn’t really a crime, like, say, throwing a bad teamster off a balcony into a dry swimming pool), he tends to his horses and his land, and if you cross him, ho boy, look out. Now, Robicheaux admires Albert, though one would never guess it from the way he and Albert never spend any time together at all. We know Robicheaux admires Albert because he says, “But I tried not to let my admiration for him involve me in his quixotic battles with windmills.”Albert’s “rusted armor lay always at the ready, even though his broken lances littered the landscape.”
Among the book’s other heroes is Robicheaux’s wife, who was a nun working in the Third World, but in Swan Peak is merely a rubber wall for Robicheaux to talk at—very occasionally—and a shimmering freckled object for him to get horny about. Then there’s Jimmy Dale Greenwood, yet another victim of a broken system who unjustly stacked time, in his case for knifing a pimp. There are other, more negligible heroes, like Special Agent Alicia Rosecrans, one of the lesbians Clete magically transforms into a straight woman, and, while he’s at it, inspires her to quit her job at the FBI so she can fulfill her role as Clete’s “Asian mermaid swimming though a rainbow that arched across the entirety of the landscape.”
Every single time Alicia turns up, we’re reminded that she’s Asian—specifically, Amerasian, which means her father was a white American and her mother was—in this case most likely Vietnamese. Why her being half-Vietnamese is important remains unclear. Perhaps—and I’m doing work here that Burke should have done—it’s because Clete and Robicheaux both served in Vietnam, and make frequent and tedious reference to their experiences. To describe a character as Amerasian is not usually problematic in and of itself, but it is here: I suspect Burke feared readers wouldn’t remember who she was if he only used her name, and she is unmemorable; the only other Asians in the book are the “Imperialist Japanese,” who bombed Pearl Harbor, and the Communist North Vietnamese. To offer another, less obvious example, Alicia reminds Clete of “a lab technician taking apart an insect with tweezers.” A scientist, you say? Burke was unable to steer away from cliché, and Amerasian Alicia is suspect until she is finally redeemed by quitting her job and riding off into the sunset with Clete. And lastly, there’s this passage, in which Burke explains to us what prison inmates are like:“Like Orientals, each inmate creates his own space, avoids eye contact, and stacks his own time.” Yup. I’m gonna cry racism.
The villains are as uninteresting as the heroes, and all Burke’s villains are alike. They are all physically damaged in some way—ranging from balding, to walking with crutches, to being severely burned. These men (all the villains are men) tend to be sexually deviant, as well. They like underage girls, they sexually abuse their wives, they can’t get it up, or they’re homosexuals who hate themselves, who satisfy their “inclination” with “rental videos or on the Internet or across the border in Mexico.” Or by raping prisoners.
Troyce Nix is introduced as a villain, and he’s an alarming villain, because he’s representitive of Burke’s attitudes in this book. He’s a gunbull—a prison guard who oversees a work crew—and part owner over a contact prison. He was an MP at Abu Ghraib and “at this other place… outside Bagdad.” We learn later that he feels a little guilty for waterboarding a man to death. I say “a little,” because what could have been a truly dark and powerful revelation about Troyce is merely brushed off by his girlfriend, who says, “That’s behind you now, honey… you’re sorry for what you did. That’s all a person can do sometimes, just say he’s sorry.”
Early in the novel, Troyce stops at a steak house, where he picks up a male prostitute. “He wasn’t quite Troyce’s type, but it had been a long time between drinks.
This “fellow traveler,” turns out to be the only gay man in Swan Peak. Troyce isn’t really gay, and once we learn this, we learn that Troyce really isn’t a villain, either. The morning after his night with the “fellow traveler,” Troyce meets “a honky-tonk in-your-face piece of work by the name of Candace Sweeney.”
Candace, the girlfriend who later tells Troyce that sometimes all a person can do is say he’s sorry, is a buxom and patient girl who sees Troyce as a good man who just needs the love of a good woman. She may not be a prostitute, but she’s the whore with a heart of gold, and all she wants is to open a diner with Troyce and live happily ever after.
Of course, they don’t leap into bed, which Candace sees as Troyce being a gentleman, but we all know it’s because she certainly isn’t “quite Troyce’s type.” At least, that’s what we think we know…. Troyce moves from being just a monster to a sympathetic monster, a kind of Beast to Candace’s Beauty, who gradually loses interest in revenge, lavishes gifts on her, takes her dancing, confesses his sins to her, and lets her guide him into bed where, “She held his head between her breasts, then picked up his phallus and placed it inside her.” Not only is his penis apparently detachable, but he is cured of both homosexuality and villainy. Candace says of Troyce, “You have a cinder block for a head, but you’re a good man.”
A good man. At this point, the book believes that Troyce is a good man.
This book also believes that torture is justifiable (Robicheaux tortures a corrupt minister and then proceeds to seek absolution from a priest, which is instantly granted), that evil is earmarked by physical deformity, that homosexuality is a curable deviance, that wealthy people are invariable corrupt, that the U.S. justice system is in error when it punishes vigilantes, that the FBI is contemptible and should leave real police work to cops and private investigators, and that everyone’s a drunk. Yet, this book also thinks that maybe George W. Bush was a mistake, that Vietnam might have been a mistake, that big oil is probably bad, and that New Orleans got screwed by the government. Swan Peak is a deeply confused book, and so must its author be, realizing–even as he writes on autopilot–that his mouthpiece Robicheaux, occasionally even speaking in first person, is a violent sociopath, immune to human emotion, and totally detached from reality.
Adam Golaski is the author of the story collection Worse Than Myself (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2008) and of Color Plates (Rose Metal Press, 2009). Adam co-edited A Sing Economy, the latest anthology from Flim Forum Press, and he is the editor of New Genre, a journal that promotes craftsmanship and innovation in horror and science fiction. He teaches literature and writing at the University of Connecticut.