James Lee Burke's Fictional Take on Katrina James Lee Burke has been writing about South Louisiana for half a century. The first wave of post-Katrina fiction is now hitting bookstores, and Burke rides it with two new books: Tin Roof Blowdown, the latest novel in his Dave Robicheaux series, and the story collection Jesus Out to Sea.
NPR logo

James Lee Burke's Fictional Take on Katrina

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12303974/12349930" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
James Lee Burke's Fictional Take on Katrina

James Lee Burke's Fictional Take on Katrina

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12303974/12349930" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

"Harry Potter" isn't the only book out this summer. The first wave of post-Hurricane Katrina fiction is just now hitting bookstores, including two books by James Lee Burke. Burke has been writing about southern Louisiana for half a century. He's best known for his Dave Robicheaux series about a screwball sheriff's deputy. Robicheaux is featured in the new novel, "The Tin Roof Blowdown." James Lee Burke's other work is a story collection called "Jesus Out to Sea."

WMRA's Martha Woodroof reports.

MARTHA WOODROOF: Author James Lee Burke has lived around the Gulf Coast for most of his 70 years.

Mr. JAMES LEE BURKE (Author): For a writer, South Louisiana is a gift from God because there's no other place quite like it.

WOODROOF: Which is something Burke ably demonstrates in his fiction, according to Susan Larson who's been the Times-Picayune book editor since 1988.

Ms. SUSAN LARSON (Book Editor, Times-Picayune): Jim Burke have taken our stories and told them to an increasingly larger audience. His books are like one long ongoing story of what has happened to the state.

WOODROOF: Burke's characters are mostly hardscrabble crooks, cons, grifters, and gamblers, and the folks who must deal with him, people who had a fair amount of trouble before Katrina. He sees his fictional take on southern Louisiana life post-Katrina as fundamentally realistic. Burke says besides the characters, he made nothing up in either of his new books.

Mr. BURKE: I don't think there's anything in there - the factual material - that I could not defend. There are things that I left out. I think it whispers the account. It doesn't shout.

WOODROOF: In the collection's title story, "Jesus Out to Sea," two men in the 9th Ward are stuck on the roof waiting to drown, watching others get rescued. The narrator, an affable jazz musician and sometime junkie, knows he and his friend aren't going to make it. Their society's expendable.

Mr. BURKE: Toward evening the sun goes behind the clouds and the sky turns purple and is full of birds. The Coast Guard choppers are coming in low over the water, the downdraft streaking a trough across the surface, the rescue guys swinging from cables like anyone could do what they do. They're taking children and old and sick people out first and flying without rest. I love these guys.

WOODROOF: The story, "Jesus Out to Sea," was first published in the March issue of Esquire, making it one of the earliest pieces of post-Katrina fiction. James Lee Burke ended his last Dave Robicheaux novel with Katrina's arrival, promising his readers he'd tackle the storm head on in the next one. Early on in "Tin Roof Blowdown," Dave Robicheaux gets his first look at the drowned city. Susan Larson of the Times-Picayune.

Ms. LARSON: Well, I think Dave seeing the city, entering the city and seeing these things, echoes everybody's experience of coming in to New Orleans and actually seeing what happened after being away from it.

Mr. BURKE: The entire city within one night had been reduced to the technological level of the Middle Ages. But as we cross down to the elevated highway and headed toward the convention center, I saw one image that will never leave me and that will always remain emblematic of my experience in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Monday, August 29 in the year of our Lord 2005. The body of a fat black man was bobbing face down against a piling. His dress clothes were puffed with air, his arms floating straight out from his sides. A dirty skim of yellow froth from our wake washed over his head. His body would remain there for at least three days.

WOODROOF: In Burke's fiction, the devastated New Orleans becomes a kind of archetypal backdrop against which he can explore his most persistent theme - the pitting of the powerless against the powerful.

Mr. BURKE: I'm 70 and I've never changed. I do not trust people who seek authority and control over others. I try to get as much gone between me and them as possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOODROOF: The Times-Picayune's book editor, Susan Larson.

Ms. LARSON: This is kind of a literary rendering of the visual images that made such a powerful impact after the storm. And sometimes I don't know if it's worst to see it or to read it. Actually, if you're a reader, this is a passage that brings back such painful memories for so many people. And this is the truth of what haunts us still.

WOODROOF: So fictional characters are starting to go through what the real people of the Gulf Coast endured two years ago. James Lee Burke's been chronicling the area his whole writing life. He and the other authors will undoubtedly continue to show how the entire region has been changed forever by Katrina.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.