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Table of contents
2. Explanation of key terms
3. The Tin Roof Blowdown
4. Neon Rain
5. The contrast to the author´s biography
5.1 The southern writer
In this term paper I`m going to deal with the traumatic experiences of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) homicide detective Dave Robicheaux in the Vietnam War in 1965 and their literary function by examining the essential parts of the two books “Neon Rain” and “The Tin Roof Blowdown”. Furthermore I will try to find out how the description of Dave´s experiences and his character correlate with the biography and the character of the author. For the extensive understanding of James Lee Burke I will work out a brief excursus which deals with the special features that are immanent in the southern writer due to the history of the region and the mentality of its inhabitants. I hope that my essay will shed more light on the reasons why Burke uses the image of the Vietnam War so many times in his novels and give clues about his opinion about the engagement of the USA in Southeast Asia. The current state of source material is quite good as Burke is a well-known author and has led many interviews. He also runs a very informative website with lots of links to interviews which I used extensively. My main sources were of course his two books, an instructive biography written by Barbara Bogue and an interesting book about the unique features of the American south.
2. Explanation of key terms
When dealing with the history of the Vietnam War and its effects on the participating soldiers, it´s also necessary to explain some of the key terms which are important for the understanding of the psychological repercussions. One of those terms is the Post-Vietnam-Syndrome, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which was related to veterans of the Vietnam War. It is characterized by intense thoughts and nightmares about the combat situation, numbed responsiveness and several other symptoms like drug dependence, depression, anxiety, hypervigilance to threat and rage. Its negative effects range from disassociation, hyperarousal and flashbacks on the first stage over sleeping dysfunction, irritability and low energy on the second stage to obsession with the deceased and survivors guilt at the third and most severe stage. PTSD-sufferers tend to stay away from people, places or conditions that remind them of the traumatic experience. Many of these characterizations can be found in the description of Dave Robicheaux`s state of mind.
Lots of the concerned soldiers were under the impression that there wasn´t much help being offered to them and tried to cope with their situation by abusing drugs. In fact there wasn´t much help in the beginning because the problem was new to the army itself. We can state that by the fact that the 1980s saw the first theoretical research of the term PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), even if the condition has very likely existed since mankind has started to wage wars. There are two interesting facts about this disorder which are important for the examination of Dave´s PTSD: At first it´s said that the rates of disorder have been higher in ethnic minorities, to which Dave as a Cajun clearly belongs. The source claims that there´s “a tendency for individuals from minority ethnic groups to blame themselves, have less social support (…) as well as differences between how ethnic groups may express distress”.[i]
And another issue might suggest that Dave has got a higher risk for developing PTSD: the long duration of the traumatic event (one year in Vietnam), the seriousness of the event (wounded twice) and the absence of social support after the event (Dave lost both parents).[ii]
Another key term is the My Lai massacre. It is a term to describe the mass murder of up to 500 civilians in northern South Vietnam in March 1968. It was committed by US-soldiers under the command of Lieutenant William Calley and ranges as one of the largest massacres of the US-Army.
3. The Tin Roof Blowdown
The Tin Roof Blowdown starts with a three page long flashback of Dave´s experiences in Vietnam. And there are many references to Vietnam in this book, some of which I will put in context with Dave´s PTSD and the effects on his acting in after-war America.
The beginning of the novel reminds the reader of a scene in Francis Ford Coppolas movie “Apocalypse Now” in which Martin Sheen lies in his bed, unable to move, while he sees the blades of helicopter rotors cutting the air as they fly through a devastated landscape in front of his inner eye. When Burke writes about "gunships coming low and flat across the canopy, like insects pasted against a molten sun“, one feels involuntarily reminded of the famous scene in which the helicopters of the air cavalry launch an attack on a Vietnamese village, this time coming from the sea. There´s a scene in which the helicopters look like deadly insects which come out of the rising sun, ready to attack the village.
Whether it was intended or not it however creates a strong image in the reader due to the popularity and quality of the movie. And there´s another potential reminiscence: The scene where Burke describes how Coast Guard helicopters rescue people from their rooftops while being attacked by snipers again reminds one strongly of the Vietnam War, more precisely of the evacuation of the US-Embassy in Saigon, where terrified people tried to catch the last helicopters to safety.[iii] And the conditions in the flooded New Orleans with its looters and it´s anarchy awakes memories of another famous movie called "The Deer Hunter", in which the character played by Robert de Niro tries to find his friend in a doomed Saigon. I suppose that James Lee Burke must have seen this movie too because there´s another reminiscent scene in "A morning for Flamingos” involving Russian Roulette.
What role did helicopters play in the Vietnam War and especially in Dave’s imagination? Or, asked from another perspective: what does Burke want to achieve by the frequent use of the helicopter image in Dave´s memories, especially when he describes the one that gets shot down over the Chinese Sea in Vietnam? For finding an answer to this question one has to find out what the helicopter symbolized in the conflict, what it meant to US-Soldiers on the one hand and to the Vietcong on the other hand. The choppers, most commonly the Bell UH-1 "Huey", can be seen as the workhorse of the US-Forces in the Vietnam War as it was reliable and frequently used. It wrought havoc and death to the enemy and at the same time saved many wounded soldiers from certain death. But, and that´s the point of the matter, it didn´t prevent the defeat and wasn´t invulnerable. Approximately 1250 out of 7000 helicopters[iv] of that type had been shot down in the conflict.
I think Burke uses the symbol of a falling helicopter because he wants to display the powerlessness of the US who were, despite their technological superiority, unable to prevail over soldiers who fought with sometimes archaic weapons like the punji-stick, a booby trap which consisted of a sharpened bamboo stick that had been rammed into the ground hidden in a camouflaged pit. The falling helicopter in this context reminds one of the Greek myth of Ikarus, who became too cocky, flew too close to the sun and fell into the Ocean as he lost his wings, and can so be seen as a symbol for an arrogant superpower which dies because of its own hubris. It’s a recurring symbol in Burke’s books.[v] The crash may also stand for the desperation that Dave feels representatively for the American Soldiers who may already know or will learn later: There will be no escape from Vietnam. Even if the surviving soldiers will finally, unlike their drowned or burned comrades, return to their families, they will still be trapped in Southeast Asia by their lasting memories and nightmares.
Dave’s worst dreams, so to say the memories that trouble him the most, are those of his wounded comrades who are unable to understand what has happened to them. Their behavior reminds one of kids who had a severe accident and who don´t understand what happens to them. In his dream the helicopter who evacuates his severely wounded comrades gets shot down by a solitary RPG (Rocket-propelled-grenade) and all the people inside it die in terrible ways. A very cruel scene considering the fact that they were all home bound as their injuries were bad enough to earn them a ticket back to the US. I think Burke uses this story as a metaphor to show the reader that a part of Dave still remains in Vietnam even if his body has been transferred back to the US. Just like the Negro corporal who was in the helicopter and is now buried somewhere in the water of the Chinese Sea, a certain part of Dave will always stay in the Far East.[vi] The fact that Dave can´t escape Vietnam is furthermore emphasized by his dream of a door-gunner who is "forever wedded and addicted to this piece of earth he´d help make desolate, this land that was his drug and nemesis."[vii]
When Dave finds sleep again after his nightmare he assures himself, that he will never again have to witness the suffering of civilians and the betrayal of his fellow Americans like he experienced it in the war and its aftermath. “But that was before Katrina”[viii] writes Burke. And just like the wounded in the chopper, New Orleans will have to die three times. With this anticipated déjà vu experience, of which Dave isn`t yet aware of, the author creates a strong feeling of tension and at the same time links the cruel impressions of the Vietnam War with the events that took place in New Orleans. That´s a daring but accurate comparison, because as we know now, both Vietnam and Katrina were major collective traumatic experiences in US-American history. They showed the citizens of the United States that both the country and its citizens were as vulnerable as any other people in the world and that its citizens were also as capable of atrocities as other people when faced with anarchy. And in both events the president only acted when the public pressure became too intense. My interpretation of the dream scene is that Dave stands as a symbol for the many Vietnam veterans who try to tell themselves that the past is a transient memory and that they are able to end their nightmares by their own will and who don´t want to accept their failure to do so.
Williams Blake Poem "The Tyger" is mentioned several times in Neon Rain and can in parts be linked to Dave´s feelings about Vietnam and the orient. The Tiger in Blake´s poem is fascinating in its wild beauty, just like Vietnam itself with its lush green jungles, it´s golden beaches and the sunlit rivers but, at the same time, it is catty and dangerous like the Vietcong insurgents hidden in the jungle or the mines buried in the ground. The tiger is a symbol for a highly ambivalent world which contains both beauty and danger, both good and evil living together closely in the same place. I would say that the stylistic device Burke creates out of that symbol can be seen as a parable applied both to New Orleans and Vietnam: Both had been wonderful places before a terrible catastrophe brought anarchy, manmade suffering and cruelty. The nemesis of New Orleans becomes an American trauma just like the Vietnam War.
Burke links the Hurricane Katrina to the Vietnam War when he personalizes the natural event as he says that "Category 5 hurricanes don`t take prisoners"[ix] and thus gives the storm, which already wears a woman’s name, a face as well. He links the extraordinarily cruel way of warfare with the unmerciful indifference of a natural disaster. In fact soldiers of both sides who fought the Vietnam War didn´t take prisoners many times, either due to racial hatred or to the obstruction those prisoners would have been for a platoon in the middle of the jungle. The inhumane brutality, with which the war was being led, is also used as a metaphor to describe feelings which rise in Dave when he has to deal with criminals.
In order to show the hate that Dave feels when Bertrand Melancon asks him to lower his voice when Dave accuses him of being a rapist, Burke creates a strong image: he gives the reader insight into Dave´s mind who feels the same hate that he felt when he saw American soldiers who had been skinned alive and who then had been hanged into trees (by the way a reminiscence to the moviePlatoon). It is this anger that makes normal men want to kill somebody. Surely Burke wants to display the hate and disgust Dave feels, but maybe it can be seen as an attempt to find reasons why the war was led in this cruel way and why the soldiers became so inhuman that they were finally capable of even killing children.
When Ronald Bledsoe threatens his family Dave´s killer instincts arise again. The thought of his loved ones being harmed by that psychopath makes him wish he could kill Bledsoe. It´s obvious that Burke often uses pictures from the Vietnam War when he wants to show us Dave in a situation where the control slips out of his fingers, where he isn´t able to control things around him anymore, where the fate of his family and himself is at s.b. else´s mercy or where they are threatened by an invisible menace. In this case Dave´s angst, which, as we learn, has been there all his life and which had only been triggered again by Bledsoe, is depicted by the image of mortar rounds zeroing in on Dave´s position in the battlefield. It´s a powerful feeling of threat that surely none of us has yet experienced, but which we all may know from a thunderstorm breaking lose above our heads. One knows that each second you can get struck by lightning and you can´t feel it coming. Even if the chance of getting struck isn´t very high, we still have a very uncomfortable feeling of something lying in the air. This is exactly the feeling that Burke wants to create with his battlefield comparison. Dave describes that feeling as being stripped of one´s skin.
In many of Burke´s novels the injustice of slavery and segregation is mentioned and also the underprivileged role that many black people still have nowadays, like the murdered black girl in Neon Rain who was tempted to work as a prostitute due to the poverty of her family.
And now in Vietnam, for the first time the boundaries between white and black fall. In one scene, Dave finds himself lying next to a black corporal, who crashes with the helicopter minutes later and dies. I think Burke uses this scene to emphasize a fact that is especially important when we consider where the Dave Robicheaux novels play: in the deepest South, in Louisiana, one of the states with the most severe segregation laws up to the 1950s.
Still there were more black people in the lower ranks than in the higher and there were more blacks than white being drafted considered their percentage in the population. But they fought side by side with white soldiers and often enough the wartime experiences glued them together and quite a few of them became friends. In this case we read about a black corporal, a rank which isn´t very high but still allows the bearer to be the leader of a fire team, which may also consist of white soldiers. And he´s treated the same way like Dave. He was at the LZ (Landing Zone) before him, so he gets the place in the chopper, which eventually gets shot down. In the war, we learn, the segregation doesn´t count. A bullet, a piece of shrapnel and finally death make no difference between black and white and so doesn´t the enemy
[i] <http://www.medicinenet.com/posttraumatic_stress_disorder/article.htm>, 02/23/09, 1pm
[ii] Cp. <http://www.medicinenet.com/posttraumatic_stress_disorder/article.htm>, 02/23/09, 1pm
[iii] Tin Roof, 22
[iv] <http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Rotary/Huey/HE11.htm>, 2/23/09, 9pm
[v] Tin Roof, 1-3, Burning Angel 213
[vi] Cp. Tin Roof, 3
[vii] Neon Rain, 132 found in Bogue, Barbara. (2006). James Lee Burke and the Soul of Dave …Robicheaux. Jefferson (NC). McFarland & Company, 81
[viii] Tin Roof, 3
[ix] Tin Roof, 493