I remember my dad telling me…

by DRM

When Preacher stepped out of the elevator, he saw a man in a beige suit and pink western shirt sitting in a swivel chair behind a huge desk, framed against a glass wall that looked out onto the bay. On the desk was a big clear plastic jar of green-and-blue candy sticks, each striped stick wrapped in cellophane. His hips swelled out at the belt line and gave the sense that he was melting in his chair. He had sandy hair and a small Irish mouth that was downturned at the corners. His skin was dusted with liver spots, some of them dark, almost purple around the edges, as though his soul exuded sickness through his pores.

Rain Gods: A Novel
James Lee Burke

I remember my dad telling me one summer that he was teaching a course that included James Lee Burke’s novels, something about writers with a sense of place, and his wondering what made Burke’s novels Literature.

1C7A9CAA-B721-4D71-BE10-8C4D4D6CEC47.jpgThe comment popped up from my memory yesterday while I was reading Rain Gods and stopped at this description. Something about it bothered me.

The book had been moving along on the tide of its plot, emerging from of violence and confusion into a barren Texas landscape that became a tableau for a morality tale of conflict, identity, spirit and love. The writing is intentional: in each character, Burke’s working a recovery, using words to create recognition and connection in a sustainable way. And all the while, the plot is gathering intensity. The drama is elevated.

This one paragraph, when I read it, made me feel like he’d tried too hard. It was the Irish mouth that stopped me. What’s that mean? What does an Irish mouth look like? Thin and wan? Supple and pink? An emblem got slapped on a character in the moment of introduction that created an obstacle to really seeing him. Then, his soul exuding sickness from his pores. We’ve got an Irish mouth and sick pores, and the result is that the person who is sitting at that desk is outside of our imagination. We weren’t given the tools we can build an image with, so he stays empty, general.

But I’m working my way through the book with interest, because that was one of the few places where Burke truly mis-stepped. The drama has become existential, a rumination on the nature of good and evil, the radius of Love, propelled by a plot that demands resolution, a kind of violent need of the story itself.

When my dad asked the question, with a peevish, disapproving tone, I gave a half-hearted defense that lacked conviction and shied away from the disdain that would follow my father’s sense that he’d been crossed.

What’s wrong with Burke? Nothing. This is a good writer who is capturing a sense of place and connecting it to the question of man, of identity, memory and truthfulness, of lives that are about survival, not civilization, of personal loss and redemption, pain, remove and obligation.

If art is the attempt to capture experience, to shift our understanding and perception of the world, then this qualifies as art. It it meant to be popular? Yes, the form and the vernacular are popular, part of a fiction that has certain formal requirements. But form is the embrace of context. It creates objectivity in modernism. Within the form, the effort to find some comment of human, on experience that shifts and turns: that qualifies as art, and I would think in that essence is truly Literature.