Iconic Mystery Novelist James Lee Burke Charts His Path to Wayfaring Stranger

Books Features

James Lee Burke—the acknowledged dean of American mystery novelists, a rare winner of two Edgar awards, the man named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, the writer Michael Connelly calls “the heavyweight champ”—has transcended his chosen genre.

The prolific, beloved American writer who started out as a literary novelist published his first book (Half of Paradise) in 1965, and he followed it with four equally literary books: To the Bright and Shining Sun; Lay Down My Sword and Shield; The Convict and Other Stories; and The Lost, Get Back Boogie. Then a long 13-year hardcover publishing drought set in, and Burke couldn’t get arrested in New York.

A fellow novelist suggested crime as a solution—a crime novel, that is—and Burke sat down in a San Francisco café a few days later to write The Neon Rain, the first of 20 enormously successful novels about his flawed Cajun hero Dave Robicheaux. The series, set in the corrupt swamp of Louisiana’s cultures and focused on righting social injustices, made Burke into an icon.

It also allowed him the artistic freedom to eventually return to his first love and to explore the power of the written word to move the heart and the mind. Increasingly, Burke now calls upon his naturalist influences—Steinbeck, Faulkner, dos Passos—in historical literary fiction like his newest novel, Wayfaring Stranger. Alongside his more traditional Robicheaux mysteries, Burke’s historical fiction (White Doves at Morning) draws on his Texas and Louisiana roots, mining his plentiful and powerful familial stories and influences.

This in-depth talk with Burke—the most extensive and wide-ranging interview he’s ever done—began as he chatted with Paste earlier this fall about the West, not the South.


You know, I love California.

I did book tours up until 2005, 35 stops each year, and always had a great time in California. But you know, some guys lose it on those tours. They’re hard work, up at 5 a.m. for the TV interview and signing late into the night every day. One writer, he started going crazy, throwing books into the air. It was his first time at this; he went totally nuts. Throwing books all over the store! (laughs)

California is a great state—it’s an open-air theme park for the insane. It’s just a great place! I think it has to do with the La Brea Tar Pits. I mean it’s not an accident that Charlie Manson and Dick Nixon both come from the same area. (laughs again)

Steve Hunter and I did a signing at the old Mystery Bookstore in L.A. one time, and the crowd got out of control. Fellow there in line, he was an ex-boxer, used to hang out at the old Olympia gym on the Southside, got into it with a fellow, a real obnoxious guy in the line. Punches got thrown. The owner threw the guy out of the store. People were drunk. It was a disaster. I signed about 2,000 books that evening. I wanted to check myself into an asylum when I left.

Literary events on the West Coast were notorious—the beats, guys like Gregory Corso, Lenny Bruce, people knew how to scuffle. Most of those guys came out of rough backgrounds, were rough guys. Neal Cassidy—you know he never used profanity? He thought it was degrading.

I think we’ve had two big losses in our modern culture—one is the loss of civility, but the other is the loss of eccentric behavior. We used to honor our crazy writers, people like Dylan Thomas. Allen Ginsberg was never dull. At one talk at the University of Kansas, he took off his clothes (laughs) at the podium, on the stage. That was the most expensive disrobement in the history of people taking off clothes. The Kansas state legislature cut the liberal arts budget by one million dollars. Because of this one guy.

A great many of my family are attorneys or writers. My first cousin was Andre Dubus. He and I more or less grew up together, born four months apart. He was one year ahead in school, his freshman year he won the Louisiana state college writing contest. I started writing my freshman year in college in Lafayette; I thought I had to get into the action with Andre. I entered my first story in the contest and I won honorable mention, but that was pretty good. I’d been a poor student in high school, but improved in college.

People overlooked the greatness of Andre’s work—the best of it was written in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He wrote some of the best stories in the English language, I believe, during that period. You see, he came along at the same time as Barthelme and Raymond Carver, and I’m not taking away from their work—but I don’t think it’s a contest. Their work was minimalistic, they were part of a literary movement.

But Andre Dubus wrote traditional stories—not in theme, but his characters were flesh and blood. They were scarred by war and abusive homes and racism, certainly. He took with him this enormous and dark experience of the Deep South. Because he saw it first-hand, almost everything he wrote was easily recognized. I remember all of the people in his stories; I remember all of the events. His memory was like Jack Kerouac’s—he memorized everything he heard and saw. His stories about the Marine Corps, about bush league baseball, about prostitutes, one who’s raped by the black man, Sonny Broussard—that story is the most haunting story I’ve ever read, and I’ve never seen it anthologized. It ends, the story ends, in Angola prison. The poor guy is put to death—you never forget that image of this man sweating behind this black veil that’s dropped over his face in the electric chair.

All of those things happened. These are things that people don’t believe today, or they block them out. You see, only nine miles from New Iberia, which was our family home, where all the Burkes have lived since 1836, a black kid, named Willie Francis, was electrocuted in 1948. He was just a boy, he committed a homicide, I think he was 14. He was electrocuted twice. First time, the executioners were drunk and they burned him very badly. And then he recuperated, his lawyer petitioned the governor for clemency. That was Jimmie Davis, the man who wrote “You Are My Sunshine.” The man refused to grant him clemency. This poor kid was put to death. These are things, stories that we knew, that happened in our lifetime. And Andre wrote about ‘em.

I started writing quite young. I published my first story at 19, in a college literary magazine, and I’ve been doing it with a serious bent ever since. My first published novel was Half of Paradise. I wrote it between the ages of 20 and 23, finished it while working on a pipeline in Texas. My wife and I met and married in graduate school, and I worked for a pipeline company.

I believe that the issues in my work have always been the same. The influence, of course, was always the work of the great naturalists—in particular, Steinbeck, and I put William Faulkner in there, too. James T. Farrell influenced my work. Certainly Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, did. Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, John dos Passos were big influences. But all of those people share the following commonalities: the environment is as important as the characters the environment has produced; and the theme is always social justice. You can’t understand one without understanding the other. To me, those have always been the most interesting components in Western literature, even going back to the Greeks. Many of my stories have their origins with Elizabethan and Greek theatre. And the Bible. I’ve been stealing from antiquity. The advantage of having a classical education is that few other people do. They don’t know where you’re getting all these great stories. They come from the Old Testament! I’m afraid to tell them (laughs)—I might be in trouble.

But, more seriously, the great stories are actually found in antiquity. Faces change, stories don’t.
Sadly, many people now look upon antiquity with disdain. We think it has nothing to offer. Actually, the classical world contained within it the scientific and engineering capacity—it contained everything that the modern world contained except a power source. It took a long time for us to get to the steam engine. Maybe it’s because manpower was so available, such huge amounts of it.

We simplify antiquity. We look in a simplistic way upon the Romans, in their amphitheatre, watching the gladiators. That was one aspect of their world. There were other aspects that were not only remarkable, but awesome, in the old sense of the word.

Speaking of antiquity—moving to L.A. in 1962 was one of those seminal experiences one has in his life, and it taught me a lesson I never forgot. Never be fooled by the appearances of a city. If you want to learn how a city works, live in its slum. Then you’ll see Frankenstein at work—get a view of the monster.
I was a land surveyor at the time, working in Colorado, and I ran out of work during the winter. We moved to L.A. to get into the union, but I got locked out—union insularity, it was a lockout union, I couldn’t get a book. So we moved to the south side of L.A. and lived on West Adams. It was a rough neighborhood. More than rough—it was run by criminals. We started to learn how it worked.

Then I went to work for the Bureau of Public Assistance, and I worked on the Southside and the East side, East Los, which was the same then as it is today. Same players, different faces. I worked on East 5th. Many of our so-called clients were convicts or mental cases out of Norwalk, but we quickly learned what poor people go through in a society which rewards celebrity, fame and money. It treats others with a kind of benign form of brutality. It’s an incremental, erosive kind of oppression that goes on on a daily basis. There’s a lot of money to be made off of poverty.

The best tenant any slumlord can have is a welfare recipient. The check is in the mailbox the fourth day of every month. I used to make out rent budgets every month for these terrible places, no upkeep on them, the slumlords are just, many of them, the scum of the earth. I’d make out rent budgets to the owners of those properties, and they lived in the Wilshire District and Beverly Hills. There’s low overhead on the building, because the owner never repairs anything, and the insurance and the tax base are low, and sometimes, when they get tired of running the property, they hire a torch to burn it and they collect the insurance.

That might be extreme, but it is a totally Darwinian environment. I would see these things every day. Cops would arbitrarily bust people of color for no reason. They’d look through a window, see people playing cards inside an apartment on hot summer evening, they’d bust the whole joint. They’d run guys in for pitching pennies, matching coins on the street corner, drinking beer in public. You’d see it every day, all the time.

In the meantime, the working girls were on every street corner around there. I never saw one of them picked up by the cops. They were there, working the trade. Narcotics and the gangs were there—not the Crips and the Bloods, but their antecedents—East L.A. Purple Hearts, Clanton 14, Aranjas (the Spiders), the Choppers, the L.A. Viscounts, which was called a paddy gang, they were all whites. But the issue was the same—control of turf. The only difference was the lack of sophisticated weaponry—they didn’t have Uzis or AR-15s. They were still using pipe guns, you know, guns made from pipes. But drive-bys were common—kids drive by a bus stop and fire into a group of people waiting for a bus. Step up behind some guy and stick a knife in his back. It was that bad. But, that was life on the Southside. All the kids were in gangs—that’s the only way they could survive. If they tried to make it on their own, they would be stomped into marmalade.

Well, how bad does it have to get before it gets bad? It can’t get much badder than that.

I never forgot these things.

In the meantime, you see, social workers have legal powers no police officer had. You can go into people’s homes with no warrant, look into their closets and under their bed, violate their dignity. I’m ashamed to this day for the things I had to do as part of my job. Look in the closet, there’s a woman’s dress hanging there. Check the icebox to see if the guy’s buying booze. Just shameful.

If a guy didn’t like it, the caseworker could close the file, all he had to do was stamp the application page with the words “Failure to Cooperate.” That’s it. Shut your utilities off, no grocery orders, no rent payment—the guy’s on the street, in a blink. That’s power. It turns the welfare recipient into a mendicant, some guy who never trusts anybody. It teaches people to lie. It’s an adversarial situation, the worst curse in the world.

My son, who’s a very successful attorney—he’s a corporate attorney today, but he was a prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department for a while—he says, “Does anyone really believe that people want to be poor? That they want to be on welfare? Do they have any idea how bad that is? How can someone want to be a drug addict?”

It’s a Darwinian environment. L.A.’s a rough town.

But that’s where art comes from. A friend of mine, a journalist named Bruce Cook, describes a moment with Jack Kerouac in a bar in Lowell, Massachusetts, when Kerouac was near the end. They’re sitting in the bar and Kerouac turns, points his finger at him and says, “Your art is the holy ghost blowing through your soul!”

This sonnet just came out of him.

1neonrain.jpg Something like that happened with The Neon Rain, my first Dave Robicheaux mystery. I’d been out of hardback print for a long time, nearly 13 years. A friend of mine named Rick DeMarinis said, “Why don’t you try a crime novel?” I thought about it, and three days later Pearl and I were in San Fran, right down by Ferlinghetti’s bookstore City Lights. I bought a yellow legal pad and walked down to this Italian café that’s right across from the Catholic Church there on the boulevard. I ordered an espresso, and I sat down and started writing the first chapter of The Neon Rain. That’s a fact.

As soon as I started writing, I knew it. I knew it when it started. I wrote two chapters and sent them to Charles Willeford, my old friend. Charles wrote back and said, “I think you may have created the most remarkable protagonist in American crime fiction.”

So yes, there have been 20 Robicheaux books now. Dave [Robicheaux] makes this point explicitly, or at least implies this conclusion: violence is always the first resort of a primitive or fearful individual. It’s the last resort of an intelligent and humane individual.

It doesn’t mean that violence itself is something we preclude from all possibilities. Dave’s not a pacifist and neither am I. There’s a time when you have to fight. But violence is always a defeat. It should never be considered a victory.

Remember what John Kennedy said after the Cuban missile crisis had passed? He said, “Victory would have been ashes in our mouths.” That quote never gets mentioned today, because it was that close.
This is my feeling, and of course I have a bias: people only recognize physical violence, and not all the other kinds. I hear from people all the time about the violence in my work. The truth is, most of the violence happens offstage in my books, and it’s reported after the fact. And it’s nothing in comparison to what’s on television.

There’s stuff that’s on television, I just cannot watch. And R-rated movies? There are elements I think are just sado-porn. This film, did you see it, Zero Dark Thirty? I don’t recommend it. Praised by all the critics, who said it was wonderful stuff.

I’ll tell you who else thought it was wonderful—Mr. Bush. In fact, it legitimized the torture program. It conveyed, explicitly, in the film, this message that torture brought about the information that resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden—which is not true. Totally false, a fabrication. And those torture scenes in the film, the beginning ones, to me, are unwatchable.

They are so cruel—but that’s not all that bothers me. What bothers me is that the audience is being told that this is somehow justified, and that the people who originated this policy, and those who carried it out, were just normal people like the rest of us. I don’t believe that. The pathology is there. And anyone who thinks otherwise, I believe, has not really seen violence of this kind. Cruelty is cruelty, and it can exist on many different social levels without being seen as such.

You see, I think the ACLU guys are really good guys—I admire them. But they defended the Nazis’ right to, in effect, emotionally brutalize survivors of the Holocaust in Skokie, Illinois. I think they were wrong. I think the ACLU was wrong. I don’t think people have the right to deliberately cause emotional distress in very vulnerable people. That’s the act of a bully—it’s an act of terrible psychological injury to some people.

This exists on so many levels. It’s an act of violence to zone poor communities so they can build massage parlors and porn theaters. It’s like selling them down the drain—that is an assault on their right to the pursuit of liberty, happiness and security. Their neighborhoods are suddenly turned into a parking lot for people who are arguably degenerates, many of them.

We do it all the time. I’ve never seen a corrupt member of a zoning board locked up. I’ve never heard of a slumlord being locked up. I’ve never heard of car manufacturers who know that there is something wrong with the vehicle, selling it to people who end up getting killed, I’ve never heard of one of them getting indicted for murder—it doesn’t happen.

There is another kind of violence—how about conducting wars that are fought only by one part of the population? If this is an honorable cause, then shouldn’t all of us participate in it? Everyone from 17 to 70 should have to share in the burden. But that’s not the way it works.

There is violence on many different levels. I remember when I did folk recordings in 1961 in Angola penitentiary. Another guy and I got access to the penitentary and did recordings of the guards and inmates in the camps. They were remarkable tapes. I was standing on the levee, looking out on the river at the edge of the prison farm. This gun bull told me, he said, “You know, Mr. Burke, you’re standing on a hundred dead men.”

I believed him because I’d heard the stories.

I knew a convict, I was his social worker, did 42 years total time. He was on the levee gang; his first week there, he saw four black men shot and buried. Not far from that levee, I was recording at Camp A, which was all black. That was the place where the iron sweatboxes were. They were perpendicular, constructed like a coffin, so the man could never sit down. If he collapsed his knees and his buttocks would hit the sides of this iron box. One man was left in there 19 days. They left that poor devil in there 19 days!

These are not just stories. I’ve listened to the guards. They’d say these things in front of me while their families were present. About what they call, and this is their language, “makin’ a Christian out of a nigger.” I watched two guards cuff a guy—they caught him and cuffed him. I asked a guard what happened, and he said, “Aw, nigger stole a sandwich and then he run.”

I said, “What are they going to do to him?”

“Aw, they’re gonna take him down to the hole and sweat him. Beat him with a garden hose.”

They put men on anthills. Everyone understands that this is just the way things were run. At Angola, there’s this sparkly white building where the electric chair was, and this one guard pointed his finger at it and he said, “That’s where they knock the fire out of their ass.”

These are the correctional officers. And no doubt these men were no different than the convicts over whom they ran herd. One fellow actually slipped—I asked him how long he’d been there as a guard and he said fourteen years. He said “You know, Mr. Burke, I used to drink and get into it with bad women sometimes, and I figured if I didn’t get a job in here on top of that horse, I’d be hoeing.” I believed him—he had all the propensities of a man who would eventually end up in jail. It’s a cruel, terrible place. Nobody talks about that when they talk about violence.

Society works in an emblematic way. We use symbolic situations. One guy gets punished, one guy skates. That’s just the way it works. Anyone who’s been around it knows it’s a sewer, it’s an absolute sewer. There is no other way to describe it.

I’ve only learned one lesson in life. I’ve always believed that wisdom would come with age, and I don’t think it does. Not for me, anyway. I can only say that it’s a funny feeling to have at my age. I’m 77, but I’ve never figured out any of the great mysteries, and I don’t think anyone does. I think as you move into the later years of your life, you tend not to contend with the world, and with those who say they understand it—particularly those who say they understand the nature of God.

When people begin indicating they have solved some of the great mysteries that confront us, I distance myself. I get a little gone between me and them. When anyone tells me they know the mind of God, I have to look at them and say, “You know, I forgot, I’m supposed to be color-matching my socks tonight. I better go.”

I never figured out anything. I don’t understand why the good suffer. I don’t understand why we don’t seem to get beyond our violent ways, why we repeat that dark behavior over and over again. I guess I’ve learned maybe only two lessons.

First, I do believe that there’s a design in creation. I believe in God, I believe there’s a plan and I believe that when we act in accordance with what is best in us—when we’re brave, we’re kind, when we realize we all descend from the same tree, when we try to act with an appreciable degree of charity, when we act as good stewards of the earth and we realize that we share it with the animal kingdom—when we do these things, not necessarily in a perfect way, things work out.

And second, our greatest weakness is our fear. It allows us to, in effect, surrender reason and give up our lives, the direction of everything we love, our families, our homes, the country in which we live, to demagogues. And it always happens in times of crisis. The man on horseback is always waiting in the wings. This is our great vulnerability, particularly in the United States. We are among the most patriotic people in the world, but it’s used against us. And it doesn’t take much to start waving the flag around, on the part of people, themselves, who I think are wicked.

We have seen them in our time, men who are absolutely wicked, who have convinced large numbers of people that somehow it’s in our interest to wage wars against third-world nations. They have made a science out of it. What they do, in effect, is create cartoon villains. They’re cardboard cutouts, people like Daniel Ortega, or Saddam Hussein, or the guy in Panama whose nickname was Crater Face. They even gave him a cartoon villain’s name! All of these guys, are, in effect, pushovers. They’re easily dealt with, and they were all used by the United States as cartoon villains. We’ve been in bed with dictators since the late 19th Century.

Mark Twain warned us, in his brilliant essay about the invasion of Cuba, about walking in the footprints of the British and the French. I think we’ll probably come to the same end.

But that’s just one guy talking.

Whether or not we make it as a species is a very legitimate question. Because we’re doing away with, I mean, we’re ruining the planet. There is no question about it. We cannot do without air, and we’re cutting down the trees that give us our oxygen. We’re polluting the water that we need to drink. We’re poisoning the whole earth with chemicals. The guys who are doing this are fellows who know exactly what they’re doing.

It doesn’t look good. The huge majority of people are in favor of this toxic pipeline that’s going from Alberta down to Port Arthur, Texas. They’re being told a lie: this will create jobs. That’s a lie—the oil is going to existing refineries. Almost every scientist in the world knows this stuff has a very high sulfur content, which will add enormous amounts of pollution to the atmosphere. Lastly, it’s not for American consumption—it’s being sold overseas. It’s totally unnecessary.

And there’s one driving force behind it—it’s the Mesa Petroleum Corporation, it’s Mr. Pickens’ company. I used to be a pipeliner. Pipelines do not create jobs. There’s one crew that moves through the area, they throw a lot of money around for two or three weeks, and then they’re gone. I remember when I was on a pipeline, we would lay a huge length of pipe, they’re called joints, we’d lay 200 joints a day. Day after day, and it’s a seven day week. These guys blow through town, but they’re all from Oklahoma or Texas. They all have names like W.J. and Joe Bob. Good guys, but we’re not creating any jobs, except for that small crew. W.J. and Joe Bob have been doing this for years. They’ll be doing it until they drop, with or without this big pipeline.

Burger King will sell more burgers in Fargo, North Dakota for a month—that’s the big job boom. The hookers and the dope dealers have a great time—they follow those oil boom towns all over the country.

The greatest sociologist in American history was P.T. Barnum—a sucker is born every minute.

There are scientists who believe that this pipeline may be end game. I couldn’t believe some of the people who’ve come out in support of it. Guys who endorsed it like Fareed Zakaria, Joe Klein, they got sold a bill of goods.

Remember the scene in that Marlon Brando film The Formula? Brando’s talking to a guy named J.W, and J.W. says, “You know, them goddam A-rabs is sure causing us a buncha trouble, ain’t they?”

And Marlon Brando, the corrupt Texas oilman, says “J.W., haven’t you figured it out? We are the goddam A-rabs.”

It’s the best line I ever heard—it’s just perfect. (laughs)

I love what Willie Nelson said, “George W. Bush ain’t from Texas. George W. Bush ain’t a cowboy. So stop trashin’ Texas and cowboys!” (laughs really hard)

It took Willie to say it. Of course, that’s the persona that was created for Bush, and it worked.

A friend of mine who was a seminarian said something I’ve never heard anyone else express. He said, “Big business fought with the federal government from the Teddy Roosevelt administration all the way until the 1970s. Then they realized they were doing it the wrong way. Instead of fighting with the government, they simply usurped it.” They created this poseur Ronald Reagan. They brought him in, they groomed him, he represented General Electric, the big defense contractor, and they just simply took over government. Many of his staff came from Wall Street, others came from the defense industry, General Dynamics in particular.

Then the usurper became Clinton, and I think that’s why he was so despised by them. Mr. Clinton has his faults, but he was this poor kid, from a little town in Arkansas, who was a Rhodes scholar and a Yale law graduate, who turned them on their heads. They couldn’t deal with him. He’s far more intelligent—in any debate, he turned them into dolts, and made them look foolish. Clinton is a very good debater, but they despised him. And of course they found his weakness and they used it effectively against him.

Same thing with President Obama. They can’t stand this guy. I mean, they literally hate him. It’s not simply because he’s a black man; it’s because he’s an intelligent black man who made it on his own. He’s actually a moderate president—I mean, he’s not a liberal. Like most effective presidents, he looks for compromise. And they use that against him.

I think the last four Secretaries of Defense went from the government to jobs on the boards of directors of large defense contractors. Rumsfeld, Powell, etc. That seems to be the norm—these guys all serve corporate entities and then receive their high-paying, no-show jobs with the same companies they’ve done business with over the years. I think it’s evil. This is the system.

A friend of mine who’s in the State Department, and who’s been there many years, says, “Jim, all these politicians raise one banner, and it’s ‘Support the Troops.’” Gotta support the troops. It works every time, and the theft of funds is just enormous.

Paul Krugman, the economist who worked for Reagan, says that the greatest transfer of capital that ever occurred in the history of the world happened in 2004-05, and he said it happened before anybody knew it had happened. It’s irreversible, and it was done through the Iraq war. Hundreds and hundreds of billions, or maybe trillions of dollars, because that commitment will last for a very long time.

It’s not nearly over—it’s a long way from over, and it’s very dangerous. Decisions were made for us that will probably last a couple of generations. That would be my guess.

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence, he predicts all this—that the future would be controlled by oil. One of the most singular writers in modern history—few people understood the world as well as he did.

People are essentially good, but I believe that when we put our trust in leaders who are bellicose, who try to instill fear in the electorate, when we listen to them it’s for one reason only: we’ve allowed ourselves to be lied to because we’ve forgotten who we are.

I think that’s a very valuable lesson. My father used to say that you always have to remember who you are. The person we become is the person we decide one day is the individual we decide will define us because of the troth he makes with the higher power.

We make our troth with the force, the individual, the power, the entity, the Great Spirit. In Catholicism, it’s called the fundamental choice—at some moment a person chooses good over evil in his life. He makes his troth at that point, like the knight errant. He bends on one knee and is anointed in some way, and he becomes the emissary of that God figure in whom he believes.

The term “God” comes from a Sanskrit word, which I think meant “the holy one.” That’s about as close as we get to defining the nature of God. To me, divinity lies on the other side of the visible world. I believe that presence is among us. But it’s right on the other side of the visible world. And we become emissaries and in effect, the knight errant of that higher power, whose charge to us is a simple one: the last commandment of Jesus, his last words on Pentecost, his last words were “Love one another.” And we forget that often. Paul says that, in the Epistles, just “Love one another.” Don’t worry about the rest of it.

And the other is, to take care of the Earth. It’s a great playground. What a grand place to have. What a park. You know, in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the first chapter is dedicated entirely to man’s experience with trees. He said the first big cathedral was the forest of northern Europe, when homo sapiens was walking around among these giant tree trunks looking up at this blue sky that lay just beyond the tips of the trees. These are the pillars of this cathedral—boy, it’s just a beautiful beginning to that book.

That’s what I believe in. It’s those two things we must remember about ourselves. Make that fundamental choice, and we commit ourselves to trying to help our fellow man, to remember that we’re all bound by the same genetic glue. That’s been proven by DNA science, that there was one Eve. Maybe she didn’t make applesauce (laughs). Maybe she didn’t wear a pretty, glamorous animal skin. But there was one woman back there who bore the first human child, she and her husband.

So ultimately, we’re all related.

Secondly, we’ve got to take care of the human family, and we’ve got to take care of the home we have. It’s a great place.

I’ve always believed that the dead are still with us. We owe them a debt. They walked the walk for us, and we have to walk the walk for those who are not yet born.

My father used to believe that all time happens simultaneously, like a dream in the mind of God. I think that may be true. I think when all is said and done we’ll discover that there’s no difference between mind and matter, the physical world and the spiritual world. Even Einstein speculated that energy and mass are all interchangeable. Lines are not straight—they meet on the edges of infinity. The mystery takes you into a greater mystery. We’ll never get to a solution. I don’t think anything we’ve concluded about the physical nature of the world is probably accurate.

People can argue about religious differences. To me, if there’s a religious difference, it’s an indicator that people are not really talking about religion at all. They’re talking about “I want to make somebody else agree with me, or I will kill them.” (laughs) I mean, Jesus never used the word religion. If it’s in the Bible, I never saw it. What he was talking about were human deeds. The Bible states, “you will know them by their deeds,” and I believe that’s what spirituality is. Look, it’s in us all.

We all understand deeds. That tuning fork trembles in your chest when you get around a bad person. You know this guy’s bad news. Why? I don’t know. I just know it’s time to leave.

Good people, you just know them. You don’t know their religion, their background. Pearl, my wife, has been through two wars. Up close and personal, the worst of the worst, mass murder of civilians, incendiary raids, artillery barrages. She lived in it for years, and later flew for Civil Air Transport, which became Air America. She flew with them for two years. She flew with guys who had been with the original Flying Tigers. It was 30 years into our marriage before I knew that she had been a CIA employee! How about that for deep cover!

Married for 54 years, and we had some guys show up at our house. These guys were off the computer, and one of them a legendary pilot with Air America. No question about it, there’s a network of guys who you will not find on the computer. This has been my experience: these are good guys, but they see things in terms of extremes, good and evil, black and white. They don’t see the grey area.

Did you ever hear the story of Phillip Berrigan, Daniel’s brother, the antiwar priests? Phillip was at Lewisburg pen when Jimmy Hoffa was there. Pretty intimidating, I guess, here’s this priest entering a yard full of convicts. Hoffa went up to him and said, “Father Berrigan, you just got through orientation with the warden. Now the warden told you he runs this joint. He don’t run this joint. I run this joint. You need anything, you ask me, and you got it.” If you want justice in the world, see Jimmy Hoffa! (laughs) What does that say about our system?

[My] new novel, Wayfaring Stranger, came out of nowhere. I started it as a short story, and just stayed with it. It was really a book that had to wait 50 years, because of the number of people in it who would be recognizable, who would be hurt. But time has passed now. I wrote the book to deal with that era, the postwar era, and some really interesting people who were around then.

1wayfaringstranger.jpg But it’s actually about the present. It’s about the new era, the new empire, the petrochemical era. For good or bad, we’ve become the overseers of a worldwide enterprise that will probably define the 21st Century. It had its origins with the postwar oil boom and America’s role in colonial power.

People don’t like that term, but that’s what we became, for good or bad—it’s a new form of imperialism, and it’s corporate in nature—but it’s silly to pretend we didn’t inherit the role of the British and the French.

No one ever asked the question: Why did the Russians exhaust themselves, virtually bring down their whole empire, the Soviet Union, all for a country like Afghanistan? Because it’s the gateway to the oil and natural gas fields of Southern Asia. It’s the only reason.

No one has successfully occupied Afghanistan. The Romans couldn’t do it, not even the Brits. The British were as good at imperialism as the Romans were—they knew how to make it work. I mean, it’s brutal, but despite their brutality they were not effective in Afghanistan. An American general said, when Bush invaded Afghanistan, “That whole country is a giant ammunition dump.” That’s one of the sickest mindsets in the world—the misogyny that hides itself inside fundamentalist Islam. The sexual phobia of the Taliban—it’s almost a stone-age society.

But I don’t consider myself a person who possesses much wisdom. I believe that the only piece of mind we ever achieve comes from giving up control of our lives and control over others. Trying to control others—that’s what causes most of the problems in the world.

The first thing a fearful man does, in my opinion, is attempt to control the environment and the people immediately around him. This is why, I guess, fear is ultimately our greatest enemy.

That whole notion of control—of trying to reach into tomorrow and control our lives—it’s a foolish venture, in my opinion. But I think the venture of faith ultimately requires a great deal of courage, because we step out, on a wire, over a very deep canyon.

We have to trust the world in ways I don’t think the world has earned.

I don’t like to get around large groups of people, because I never trust people in groups. Maybe that’s a problem that I have. When people start acting in lockstep, I want to get away from them.

Dave Robicheaux asks the question: “Have you ever seen a mob rush across town to do a good deed?”

In a time when it is very easy to persuade huge numbers of people—and I mean tens and even hundreds of millions of people—of false ideas through media, the internet, television, radio … The fact that so many people can be blindly led into an enterprise like the one we’re currently invested in … Our foreign policy is totally immersed in exploration for oil and natural gas.

Ninety percent of the resources that are mined and harvested around the world are used by only 10 percent of the world’s population. And it’s all, of course, the Atlantic community of nations. There’s an imbalance that I hope we first recognize, and then do something about. But I don’t think the window’s going to be open very long. I don’t believe there’s any concerted effort to change the direction we’re currently aimed at, and that’s what bothers me.

We need more spiritual solutions, but spirituality is a matter of definition. I have no moral authority in any of these matters, because of the mistakes I’ve made in my own life. So I don’t feel I can speak in a very enlightening way to others.

For me, though, the choices are quite simple: to try to make the world, in my own humble way perhaps, a little better than it was the day before; and maybe to do some good, each day, for somebody else.

I’ve always believed that the bravest people among us, those who are the true saints, the martyrs, the real gladiators, are so humble in appearance and non-descript that we can’t remember what they look like five minutes after they walk out of a room.

Again and again, in times of duress, when people acted in a courageous way, they came out of nowhere. That was my experience. Fellow comes out of nowhere, runs into a burning building and saves a child’s life. Then he disappears, like the Lone Ranger. “What happened to that guy? Who was he? I don’t know.”

But that’s been my experience again and again and again. It comes from the most unlikely of people. I always try to remember St. Paul’s admonition. In one of his Epistles, he says, “There may be angels living among us.” So, it is very important how we treat one another—it’s kind of a warning. Don’t make an angel mad at you! (laughs)

Orwell put it better than anyone. He said “People are always better than we think they are. They keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, they go down with the decks awash and the guns still blazing.” What a great line. That’s it—people are always better than we think they are.

We have to believe it. Remember what Lincoln said: “God must’ve loved common people, because he sure made a lot of them.”

Henry V understood that. To win the revolution, you need the yeoman. If you want to win a revolution, get Joe Bob on your side.

Dave Robicheaux asks the question: “In a back-alley, broken-beer-bottle brawl, would you rather have an academic covering your back, or a hob-nailed redneck?”

You gotta get Joe Bob and Betty on your side. They’re the ones who will perform great deeds.

I remember this happened to me, and boy, it’s hard to even talk about it, but it worked out alright. It happened in Los Angeles Harbor. My wife and I and our little boy, who was only three years old, were fishing on a stone jetty, down there at San Pedro. The waves are coming in real high, and my little boy pulled out of my wife’s hand and fell onto the rocks. The waves washed over him, covered him, and I jumped in the water. And there was a kid fishing there, he jumped, too.

I got my son in my arms. This was a big fall, like 10 feet. I’m back up on the rocks with him, he’s bleeding profusely, and I started running down the jetty. That jetty was way out in the harbor, about, oh, two, three hundred yards.

We finally got to the sand—I was running over rocks. I was pretty winded. It was cold, the wind was blowing. There was no one around.

Out of nowhere, this guy, white as a frog’s belly, wearing a yellow bikini swimsuit, said “Hold on, buddy, I’m going to get the lifeguard and the paramedics.” What is a guy in a bikini doing out on a cold day like this? And he took off running, like Roger Bannister. I kept running, too, but I was winded, carrying my boy.

Then over the sand dunes comes this truck, with the lifeguards on it and the paramedics and the guy in the yellow bikini. They took my boy and wrapped him in a blanket and began treating him for a split in his head.

I looked around for the guy in the bikini, and he was gone. I don’t know where he went. I don’t know how he could have disappeared. Puff! Who was that guy? It’s always the case.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin