THERE'S NO MYSTERY TO HIS SUCCESS James Lee Burke and the hero of his books turn their lives around

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- James Lee Burke is speaking about gratitud (( and appreciation of good fortune now that, at age 55, his books are finally being read and appreciated. His voice drops to a near-whisper as he talks with slight disbelief about Joyce Carol Oates' rave review of his most recent crime novel, or when he marvels at the splendid mountain setting of his home near Missoula, Mont.

And there's something else to be thankful for: He still knows pain, but he is grateful every day not to be drinking himself to death.

Some of us hide our troubles and misdeeds well; for others, the evidence is seen in the way we walk, or carry ourselves. For James Lee Burke, two decades of pouring down the booze have helped earn him noticeable lines on an otherwise innocent, youthful face, as well as echoes of the shakes in his quiet and gentle voice.

But this is a time of epiphany for Mr. Burke. After years of near-oblivion, his reputation as perhaps the finest crime novelist in the country is being solidified by the publication this month of "A Stained White Radiance," his fifth book featuring the demon-filled but heroic South Louisiana detective Dave

Robicheaux.

This time, Robicheaux -- who continually battles the twin torments of Vietnam memories and an alcohol problem -- takes on the New Orleans Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood and an ominous David Duke-like character called Bobby Earl.

"Passages of lyric beauty and passages of explicit horror make it vintage Burke," Ms. Oates wrote of "A Stained White Radiance" in the Washington Post. Still, while James Lee Burke is most appreciative of this and other recognition, come this June something more important will take place. He and some friends in Alcoholics Anonymous -- he calls it "the Fellowship" -- will celebrate his 15 years of not drinking from the cup.

No more does he load up at liquor stores after work in preparation for the night. No longer does he experience indignities like the time his 16-year-old son had to help him lie down after a mid-afternoon drunk that came on the heels of a monstrous all-nighter. It got so bad that Mr. Burke, who can be remarkably candid discussing his former problems with alcohol, asks an interviewer not to mention some particularly memorable escapades, "because my family has suffered enough.

"You can have all the friends you want when you're in tall cotton," Mr. Burke says while sipping orange juice in a Washington hotel during a recent publicity tour. "But the people who count are the ones who found you when you were having a hard time and stuck with you."

The hard times included not only the drinking, but also a 13-year period in the 1970s and early '80s, when Mr. Burke's books, all literary fiction, were habitually rejected by publishers -- "flung back at my head," he says now.

It was not what he had expected. His first novel, "Half of Paradise," was published in 1965, when he was 28, to strong reviews ("A solid debut for a writer to be taken absolutely seriously," the New York Times wrote.) Born in Houston in a middle-class family ("a lot of people in my family write, or are teachers or lawyers"), he had put pen to paper early.

His first cousin is the noted short story writer Andre Debus and, prodded by his example, Mr. Burke began writing poetry in high school and short stories at Southwestern Louisiana University. He taught writing at five colleges and held innumerable other jobs, including working the Louisiana oil fields and being a social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, but he always wrote.

Publishing slowed down

"I thought I had a great deal of success. I had had two books published by the time I was 34," he says in his evocative South Louisiana accent, which transforms "help" into "h'ep," "oil fields" into "all fields" and, of course, "New Orleans" into "New Awlins." "I had published several short stories and things looked great. But then it took 13 years for me to be published in hardback."

One book -- "The Lost Get-Back Boogie" -- was rejected by nearly 100 publishers over nine years before it was published in the mid-'80s. His short stories continued to find homes in such prestigious magazines as The Atlantic, but he began to wonder if any more of his novels would ever be published.

"I tried everything," Mr. Burke says. "I don't know how many novels I wrote during that period that I couldn't sell. It was very frustrating and discouraging. A buddy finally suggested I write crime novels, since I had tried everything else."

Picked familiar territory

Mr. Burke chose South Louisiana, where he had grown up, as the locale -- "It's one of the most interesting places in the world and it's a unique place because much of the past is still alive there." He wrote a couple of chapters with a violence-prone, alcoholic and crusading New Orleans homicide policeman named Robicheaux as the hero and sent them to an old friend, the late and great crime novelist Charles Willeford, with whom he had taught for nine years at Miami-Dade Junior College.

Willeford, the author of such crime-fiction masterpieces as "Miami Blues" and "Cockfighter," suggested a few changes, then told Mr. Burke, "You have the beginnings of a terrific book and series."

He was right. "Neon Rain," the first Robicheaux novel, was quickly snapped up by a publisher, Henry Holt. The third, "Black Cherry Blues," won the Edgar Award in 1989 for best mystery, and the proceeds allowed Mr. Burke to quit his job as writing instructor at Wichita State University to live in Montana and write full time. And actor Alec Baldwin has bought the film rights to all the Robicheaux novels.

Made transition to mysteries

Lawrence Block, the highly regarded mystery writer, is a big fan of the Robicheaux novels. "Frequently, someone who has made a reputation in other fields tries to write a mystery novel," he says. "They do so in some patronizing fashion, but it frequently doesn't work.

"What Jim does is write well. He is a fine writer and he did write novels that were not crime fiction for some time, but if you look at his work, they're really out of the same piece of cloth."

Mr. Burke agrees. "I don't think my writing ever really changed," he says. "I've always written about the same people and places. These books, of course, deal more with alcoholism, questions about good and evil, than the other books explicitly did."

Although Mr. Burke takes pains to separate himself from Robicheaux -- "I always say Dave's a far better person than I, and anyway he's a fictional character" -- the passages about Robicheaux's battles with alcohol come from the author's heart and soul.

In "A Stained White Radiance," Robicheaux muses, "After investing years of being a drunk and sawing myself apart in pieces, I was given back my sobriety and eventually my self-respect by what people in Alcoholics Anonymous call a Higher Power." Mr. Burke says of his protagonist: "As a recovering alcoholic, Dave experiences what some term 'the long night of the soul.' All he wants is some relief, and if he doesn't find it he'll go back to drinking."

Every morning, James Lee Burke begins his life with a short meditation about living his life without alcohol. He attends Mass regularly, and twice a week goes to AA meetings in Missoula, where he continues his unceasing effort to remain sober.

But there's tranquility as well. He and Pearl, his wife of 32 years, have lived since 1990 in a three-story cedar home with grouse and owls, deer and mountain lions for neighbors.

He writes in the morning, then often tosses a fishing rod and rucksack in the back of his pickup truck and goes off to try one of the fertile trout waters near Missoula. "It's a perfect life," James Lee Burke says with a laugh, and he knows why it is.

If you grew up in the Deep South, you're probably fond, as I amof recalling the summertime barbecues and fish fries, the smoke drifting in the oak trees, the high school dances under a pavilion that was strung with Japanese lanterns, the innocent lust we discovered in convertibles by shadowed lakes groaning with bullfrogs, and the sense that the season was eternal, that the world was a quiet and gentle place, that life was a party to be enjoyed with the same pleasure and certainty as the evening breeze that always carried with it the smell of lilac and magnolia and watermelons in a distant field.

But there is another memory, too: the boys...who shot people of color with BB guns and marbles fired from slingshots, who threw M-80s onto the galleries of their pitiful homes. Usually these boys had burr haircuts, jug ears, half-moons of dirt under their fingernails. They lived in an area of town with unpaved streets, garbage in the backyards, ditches full of mosquitoes and water moccasins from the coulee. Every morning they got up with their loss, their knowledge of who they were, and went to war with the rest of the world.

D8 From "A Stained White Radiance," by James Lee Burke.

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