Having found The Lost Get-Back Boogie in paperback recently, I rushed home and settled down, expecting a good Dave Robicheaux read. Only then did I see that this novel was pre-Robicheaux. My disappointment, however, didn't last beyond the first sentence. That's how long it took Burke to assure me that already, in this early novel, he was master of the wonderful atmospheric style that I love, a style that is as close to poetry as prose can get. Can anyone else make poetry out of a description of a Louisiana chain gang? ("The captain was silhouetted on horseback like a piece of burt iron against the sun.") And, can anyone else draw his readers so instantly into empathy with his flawed hero -- whatever name he chooses for that particular hero?
In Iry Paret we have Burke's hallmark character: The strong, silent type, tough as nails and sharp as razor blades, who is yet a thinking, sensitive, deeply caring man; a young Louisiana blues singer, veteran of the Korean war, who wants nothing more than to be left in peace to play his guitar, sing his blues -- and finish the song he has been trying to write for years! Though he came home from the war unable to hunt and kill animals, he has done time in Angola for killing a man in a barroom brawl. It seemed to have been a case of self-defense but Iry, with the sense of guilt he wears like a mantle around his shoulders, is convinced he deserved the sentence.
As Beth Riordan, the woman he comes to love, says to him, "You are a strange mixture of men." Yes. But a totally believable mixture. And totally sympathetic. So when, before the first chapter ends, Iry with his new parole walks away from Angola, we find we are walking with him, in his shoes, inside his skin. By giving us a close-up look at the prison, showing us where Iry's coming from, Burke evokes in us a greater desire to see him stay out of trouble. As he walks up that dusty road, refusing a ride in the prison truck because he "has to air it out," we know tha! t just one misstep -- and Iry will make plenty of them -- could hurl him right back where he came from. And we are afraid from him.
Iry reaches his bayou home to find his father dying of cancer, both his brother and sister more foe than friend, and all his old friends dispersed and lost to him, no longer making music. When his father dies two weeks later, he gets his parole transferred to Montanna where he joins his one last friend Buddy Riordan, whom he befriended in prison.
Montanna looks like paradise to Iry, but there's trouble brewing. Rancher Frank Riordan, Buddy's father who sponsored Iry's parole transfer, is fighting the new factories that are polluting Montana. And the workers in those factories are fighting back. Though he tries to claim neutrality, Iry is pulled inexorably into that trouble until he is fighting not only for his freedom but for his very life.
This heart-wrenching, heart-warming novel is ultimately a love story. For in the end it is love that must overcome all, if all is to be overcome. Iry falls in love with Beth, Buddy's ex-wife, another guilt-evoking situation because Buddy is still trying to win her back. Can Iry have this love without betraying his friend? And will that love give him strength to transcend his own flawed nature? When everything shatters around him, will love enable him to withstand all the forces that are striving to bring him down? And finally to finish writing his song, "The Lost Get-Back Boogie"?