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What Do You Do With Good Ol Boys Like Me?: A discussion with James Lee Burke

In Robicheaux, James Lee Burke brings back his popular hero Dave Robicheaux after five years battling a populist politician, a gangster with hollywood aspirations, and the bottle. It also deals with his violent Falstaff of a friend, Clete Purcel, and a rape accusation from the wife of a liberal novelist tied to the history of his confederate ancestors. It was an honor to ask Mr. Burke some questions about the book, his hero, and his take on the was we view the civil war.

1. Did taking five years away from Robicheaux give you a different perspective on him?

I think in this book Dave has a leaner edge. Age tends to do that. An older person doesn't like a lot of doodah in his or her life.

2. Was there a particular reason you chose Dave's last name as the title for this particular book?

I think it was the publisher's and my daughters Alafair and Pamala's idea. I think it was a good choice.

3. While you deal with a lot of things in this book, I saw it mainly about Dave's relationship with Clete. What did you want the readers to understand about it?

I believe their relationship remains the same. One man is the idealist; the other is the trickster out of folklore. The two form a third personality that allows them to function in an aberrant world.

4. You are sometimes accused of being rougher on Dave than most authors are on their series characters. Why do you think it is necessary?

Dave's origins lie in the medieval Everyman plays and in Greek and Elizabethan tragedy. His Chaucer's good knight, the egalitarian light-bearer. It's not an easy role.

5. In Robicheaux you revisit the theme of the romanticism of the confederate soldier, that have a darker national view. I believe it's Alifair who says they are the new Nazis. Robicheaux and Levon seem to still carry the romanticism. What do you think think most people on either side may miss in the debates about the statues or the confederate flag?

Levon Broussard, the novelist in the book, descends from ancestors who put him in conflict with his own values, namely liberation of the oppressed. I think Levon would say that the people who wish to take down the statues of Lee and others are very good people. Their hearts are in the right place, but perhaps they are misinformed and a bit misguided and they play into the hands of the alt-right. The sin lies not in Lee's battle flag or a statue; the sin lies in the fact we have let it be appropriated by evil men.

Lee's last command to his army was for the southern soldier to reconcile with his northern brother. Shortly after the war, he was attending a Sunday service at his church, when a black woman walked from the back of the church and knelt at the Communion rail. A gasp rose from the congregation. Robert Lee quickly rose from his pew and knelt beside her. Not a word was spoken. That was Robert E. Lee.

I have conflicts myself. At Chambersburg Lee's army took black people as prisoners and sent them to Richmond to be sold. Jeb Stuart did the same outside of D.C. It was the same thing Nazis would have done. Lee had many qualities but he had serious failings as well. Maybe that's what the human tragedy is about. Like Dave R. said, I've never figured anything out.

You can get Robicheaux here

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