Book Review: Music of the Spheres by Michael Burke

Cover of Music of the Spheres by Michael BurkeMusic of the Spheres by Michael Burke (New York: Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, 2011), 186 pages.

Reviewed by Andy King

Michael Burke, the author of Swan Dive (2009), has given us another Johnny “Blue” Heron Mystery. As before, Burke drives his narrative along two tracks, a classical mythical one and a brutal postindustrial American one. A landscape of closed factories, cheap diners, sad strip joints, nearly empty rail yards, and crumbling infrastructure provides the stage for Johnny Blue Heron, the greatly gifted detective and surprisingly incisive chronicler of the decline of America’s disinherited urban proletariat. It is among this disinherited urban proletariat that Burke’s detective has cast his lot. He lives in a faded hotel among men and women with fading prospects. His cases are ones that do not fit the regular routines of police work, his delegated authority is often contested, and his assignments dangerous and episodic.

It is notable that Michael Burke, a son of one of America’s greatest wordsmiths, should have such a painterly eye. He has visual voltage and his rich prose produces one light-struck canvas after another. Photographer, painter, urban planner, astronomer and sculptor, Burke produces a bright shower of startling images. His master detective is a camera obscura who views diamond lights dance in a decaying railroad yard and “marvels at red-flowered wall paper” while undergoing fellatio. Johnny Blue Heron is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s giant eyeball in the guise of kinky private-eye.

Burke’s literary camera lens moves deftly from scenes of sordid violence to distant heavens for contemplation of the immortal stars. This visual fluency dazzles the reader while it generates the atmosphere of alienation that permeates the work. Johnny Blue Heron is in the genre of private detective as existential man with a difference. He reels from one sordid encounter to the next, and yet he is tormented by hope and presentiment of something precious, mysterious and elusive. In a fourth rate urban center rapidly descending to fifth or even sixth rate, Johnny Blue Heron represents a force that transcends the decay of optimism, the decline of the American male, or the end of the American century. Behind the machinery of the novel one senses deeper truths and those “huge cloudy symbols of high romance” swimming just beyond our ken.

Johnny Blue’s many episodes of random copulation, his frequent miscalculations and impetuous style of police work give his character a dangerous vulnerability that engages the reader. These characteristics allow Heron to escape the flatness that has characterized the Sam Spade and Mickey Spillane genre detectives and caused F. Scott Fitzgerald to dismiss the type as “square-jawed sadists with flippant speech.” Discouraged and afraid in the midst of decaying urban real-estate Johnny Blue Heron seeks out the night stars for a transcendent moment and engages in a moment of deep contemplation that steels him for a fresh encounter. Heron catalogs the images of vanishing America during his odyssey and they evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia in an older reader like me. My barn is full of phantom horses and my countryside school houses yawn like open graves in the same way that Burke’s town on the skids is full of phantom factories, and ghostly rail yards, and hulks that once were working barges. A glimpse of passengers on a lighted express train hurtling through the night, makes Heron “envious of their future” and “afraid” of death. These rapid changes from deep focus to mythic grandeur give the book a kind of pulse that is met with but rarely. The author throws a scene wide open and then quickly shrinks it to a hot and intensely dense dot. And then he throws it mythically wide open again. Burke’s painterly eye reminds the reader of William Hazlitt at his best.

Michael Burke’s prose style is fluent, vehement, rapid. His characters converse as nimbly as a troop of Commedia dell’ Arte characters. They spar and dance and jab and then quite suddenly land a blow strong enough to stun a giant. Burke reports action in pared down telegraphically brief sentences like a tight lipped sports announcer of the old school laced with the poetry of Grantland Rice. The reader has sense of tense understatement until the final explosive four chapters.

In his first two novels, Burke has emerged as a full blown master of his craft. Rumor has it that he has sold the movie rights to both works. As for me, I am eager for Burke’s next novel, starring the lustful, hard drinking, plain living, high thinking, lead-fisted detective.

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