By William Plummer
October 07, 1996 12:00 PM

CRIME NOVELIST JAMES LEE Burke is in his big cedar house in Missoula, Mont., talking with relish about a second place he’s building in New Iberia, La.—an old-style New Orleans house with an interior courtyard on the Bayou Teche. Life is sweet. Still, Burke is wary. “Success can cause you a mess of grief,” he says in his Gulf Coast drawl. “By the time I was 35, I had three books published. I thought I was home free. But that was vanity. I went a dozen years without selling a book. I couldn’t sell ice water in hell.”

These days, Burke, 59, is so hot he could probably sell sweaters there. His new novel, Cadillac Jukebox, the ninth in a series about Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, is his third New York Times bestseller in a row. Hinging on the dark maneuverings of a golden-boy politician to gain the Louisiana governor’s seat, Cadillac is pure Burke—equal parts hard-boiled action, lush descriptions of the natural world and dialogue that leaps from the page. And at the radiant center is Robicheaux. “Dave is what I admire most in people,” says Burke. “He represents courage. He’s ethical. At the same time, he’s flawed, like the tragic hero.” Or the author himself.

Burke is large-boned and roped with muscle, like his fictional alter ego. Both have lived-in faces lit by blue-green eyes. And both are recovering alcoholics whose lives have been saved by a 12-step program. “For Dave, drinking is like putting his head in a blast furnace,” says Burke. “I know—I was a practicing alcoholic for a good 18 years. I reached a point myself where I didn’t care if I lived or died.”

Booze and writing have been the yin and yang of Burke’s life. He grew up in New Iberia and Houston, where his father, James Lee Sr., was a natural gas engineer, and his mother, Frances, a secretary. An only child, Burke comes from a distinguished Louisiana family, marked by five generations of lawyers. Despite this lineage, Burke grew up with a sorry self-image. “I graduated from [Houston’s] Lamar High School in the bottom quarter of a class of 200. You had to work to get down in that basement,” he says, exploding in laughter. “I was a troubled young man and genuinely convinced that I was dumb.” It didn’t help that he’d get drunk each day after school.

Burke says he stopped drinking when he moved on to what is now the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He was determined to be a writer. “Freshman year I had an epiphany,” he says. “An English professor named Lyle Williams gave me a D-on every paper. I went and asked her why. She said, ‘Your spelling is an assault upon the eyeballs. Your penmanship makes me wish the Phoenicians had not developed the alphabet. But I couldn’t give you an F because you have so much heart.’ Every Saturday I went with her and rewrote the essay for the week. I got a B and made the dean’s list. Lyle Williams changed my life.”

So did Pearl Pai Chu, whom he met and lavishly courted at the University of Missouri, where he transferred in 1957. The Beijing-born Pearl, now 60, had escaped China by boat under Communist fire in 1949. “Jim shared his books with me, because I had no money,” says Pearl, who studied English at the University of Taiwan and was a flight attendant with a Flying Tigers affiliate before coming to the U.S. for a graduate degree. “He typed my term papers. He cooked me meals.”

The couple married in 1960 and set off on a writer’s odyssey: Over the next dozen or so years, Burke taught English at several colleges; in between he also drove a truck, surveyed land and worked as a pipe fitter in the Texas oil fields, a Job Corps teacher in Kentucky and a social worker in South Central Los Angeles. “I did things,” says Burke, “people do when they’re turned down by the Foreign Legion.”

But he did manage to write several books, beginning with Half of Paradise, a 1965 novel about two convicts in Louisiana’s penal system and a country singer addicted to speed that induced a New York Times critic to say that Burke was “a writer to be taken absolutely seriously.” He also produced a brood of kids—Jim, now 36 and a federal prosecutor in Phoenix; Andree, 34, a school psychologist in Wichita; Pamala, 32, a TV ad producer in Missoula; and Alafair, 26, an assistant district attorney in Portland, Ore.

The trouble was, he was drinking. “I thought I could try it again,” says Burke. Clearly, he couldn’t. His drinking put such a strain on the marriage that Pearl says she might have left him if it were not for the “disgrace” it would bring her family. The booze didn’t help his writing either. In the early 1970s he had three novels in print and expected The Lost Get-Back Boogie, his tale of a country singer in hard luck, to be his fourth. But “it was rejected over 100 times,” says Philip Spitzer, the dauntless New York City agent who sent the manuscript out for more than a decade.

Burke says he hit bottom in 1977. Afterward, with the help of priests and therapists, he was able to stay sober for 5½ painful years. “I was a white-knuckle alcoholic,” he says. “It’s worse than drinking. You become delusional. You undergo agitated depression coupled with psychoneurotic anxieties, what psychologists call a Gethsemane experience. You sweat blood. I was willing to be lobotomized.”

Then, in 1982, a friend told him about a 12-step program (the name of which, in keeping with membership policy, he declines to state) and took him to a meeting. “I was scared—I hid behind the coffee urn,” says Burke, laughing. “Then I heard the people talk, and I knew that I was home. Alcoholics drink out of a nameless fear that seems to have no origin. The 12-step program took the fear away and gave me back my life. Then I began to write about it in The Neon Rain.”

Burke got the idea for that first Robicheaux book in 1984, two years before The Lost Get-Back Boogie was finally published by the Louisiana State University Press. (Subsequently it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.) He was fishing on Montana’s Bitterroot River with novelist Rick DeMarinis when, remembers Burke, “Rick said, ‘Jim, why don’t you try a crime novel? You’ve tried everything else.’ ” Two days later he bought a legal pad and started writing about an alcoholic Cajun cop who was haunted by memories of Vietnam. “I knew it was right,” says Burke. “I had this great faith in it.”

It was in 1989, with the proceeds from the third Robicheaux book, Black Cherry Blues, that he was able to buy the big house in Missoula. These days the author, who has rediscovered his Roman Catholic faith, attends mass every Sunday and a 12-step meeting twice a week. He meditates each morning and tries “to do a good deed every day.” He likes to fish, play blues and country music on the guitar, hit the health club with Pearl and go to dinner with his kids when they’re in town. What he does mostly, though, from morning till midnight, is write.

Agent Spitzer theorizes that Burke is trying to make up for lost time. “I hear the clock ticking,” Burke admits. But he insists he isn’t writing for fame or money. “I never envisioned the success of these books,” says Burke. “But I think it’s for a reason. I think creativity is a gift. What it comes down to is, if a person writes every day as a way of paying back the debt he incurred by accepting the gift, he will see its validation in his life. I believe these books were the ones I was meant to write. God doesn’t make mistakes.”