"Half of Paradise,"published in 1965, was James Lee Burke's first published fictional effort. Not surprisingly, it shoots off many sparks that illuminate where he's later going to go as a writer. He gives us powerful descriptions of his home territory, around New Orleans, Louisiana; both the natural and manmade environments; for his first time out, he's pretty good on character development and dialogue, and he renders strong descriptions of people's everyday lives, jobs, and family histories. The novel reads as, probably is, three discrete novellas packaged together. It tells the story of JP Winfield, a penniless, orphaned sharecropper who discovers a talent for playing a 12-string guitar; it leads him into some prosperity and public notice, but his weaknesses are always with him. It also gives us Toussant Boudreaux, a black New Orleans dockworker who moonlights as a prizefighter, seems to have a promising career in that direction, but then takes a crippling injury. Finally it introduces Avery Broussard, descended of the area's French-Spanish landowning families: but the land's long gone, he's working as a oil company roustabout, and he's got a crippling alcohol dependency. If you see a pattern here, there is one. All three men are overwhelmed by their weaknesses; you'd have to call the book a downer. And without giving away too much of the plot, readers may learn more about Louisiana jails than many might care to. Burke's first novel introduces,in the Broussard segments, the character of black Ba'tiste, storied family servant, who will reappear in his later works. It further gives Broussard a wealthy high school girlfriend (a character that will also often reappear in his later works) the family name of Robichaux: that, of course, will later be the surname of his famous detective Dave Robichaux. It's pretty clear that Burke was going to write his way into an outstanding future once his world view got a little less depressing. How much you want to read this first effort probably depends on how much you like the later work.
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