Cadillac Jukebox

Cadillac Jukebox

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Southern flavor. You can taste it in almost every facet of novels by James Lee Burke. Say you never heard of him. Neither had I until I picked up Heartwood, a novel he wrote in 1999. The writer's style was comfortable, easy but clear, colorful and unique in a number of ways. I was so intrigued with Heartwood that, when I ran across this 1996 vintage novel, I was expecting great things. I didn't get them through writing style this time, but the story is something else.

Dave Robicheaux is the character through whom the reader experiences suspense, laughter, shock, sorrow and a range of other reactions to the story as it moves from the peaceful bait-shop and boat-rental business Dave runs (when he is not busy as a deputy sheriff in the Iberia Parish, La., sheriff's office) to the edge of organized crime in New Orleans.

The backdrop of Spanish moss hanging from the limbs of southern cypress trees rooted in the bayous of Louisiana stands in stark contrast to the catalyst for action embodied in Aaron Crown. He is serving time after having been convicted of murdering an NAACP leader. Crown is odd: "He seemed to walk sideways, like a crab, and wore bib overalls even in summertime and paid to have his head lathered and shaved in the barber shop every Saturday morning...If there was a violent portent in his behavior, no one ever saw it. The negroes who worked for him looked upon him indifferently, as a white man who was neither good nor bad, whose moods and elliptical peckerwood speech and peculiar green eyes were governed by thoughts and explanations known only to himself."

The descriptions of all the characters are, as with Crown above, so vividly delivered that a mental picture pops into the reader's mind the moment the description is delivered.

Crown has decided he was wrongly convicted and asks Dave to help prove his innocence. Dave is reluctant to do so from the beginning. As the story moves on, he becomes more interested in helping Crown because of the pressure brought to bear on him by others who want Crown to stay in prison.

Buford LaRose and his wife, Karyn, are among those putting pressure on Dave to stay out of Crown's effort to be freed. Buford is a progressive southerner who loves to bleed with compassion for those less fortunate than he. To his mind, everyone is less fortunate. He comes from old southern money and lives on the family plantation. He and Karyn are jogging by Dave's fishing place when Buford stops to tell Dave to stay away from Crown. Buford had written a book about Crown that played a role in getting him convicted. Karyn, who has a past romantic history with Dave, later attempts to seduce him and then accuses him of making inappropriate advances toward her. She brings charges against him that are dropped quickly, but nevertheless have a tremendously negative impact on Dave's life.

Dave's wife, Bootsie, is not convinced that nothing is going between him and Karyn because she knows about their past romantic involvement. Dave's home life goes stone cold. Enter Jerry Joe Plumb, an acquaintance from Dave's past who now appears to be connected with the mob. Plumb gets involved in Dave's quest for answers about Crown's guilt or innocence as well as helping Buford get elected governor of Louisiana. Plumb had been taken under Buford's father's wing as a young man and Plumb and the father had asked him to look after Buford when the father no longer could.

What is Plumb's role? Good question. Except for minor appearances until he is brutally beaten to death, Plumb serves simply to warn Dave not to meddle with Buford. He also gives him the Cadillac Jukebox. It is full of old songs, the kind that wash over your mind with memories of better times.

When Crown escapes prison, though, there is no time for sweet memories or jukeboxes. Crown is an expert in outdoor survival and knows how to hunt. He is an excellent marksman and at the top of his list of people to shoot is Buford, who is now governor. The mob becomes involved, as does an unnaturally large, strong and psychopathic hired gun named Mookie Zerrang. The characters keep coming, each stranger than the previous one.

The plot backs up, doubles back and almost consumes itself with continuous motion. The writing is not polished but it is powerful. However, the flaws in style are, at most, irritating to a stylist and may scarcely be noticed by those simply seeking a good story. Nevertheless, the book does not compare favorably with Heartwood, which is so well-written it virtually attains the level of true classic literature. The author had not reached his stride in this book published years earlier.

So what do you do about this novel? You read it and consider: why in the world is it called Cadillac Jukebox? When you figure it out, let me know. It's a good thing that enjoyment of the novel is not in any way affected by the jukebox or even in figuring out why it appears in the book. The enjoyment is in the story and the way it is told. There is no need to turn on a jukebox for additional entertainment.

Journal Date: 
Monday, May 1, 2000