Stalking Fictional Characters: James Lee Burke’s New Iberia

“The air smelled like Bayou Teche when it’s spring and the fish are spawning among the water hyacinths and the frogs are throbbing in the cattails and the flooded cypress.” ― James Lee Burke, Creole Belle

James Lee Burke Sign on Main Street in New Iberia
James Lee Burke Sign on Main Street in New Iberia

The minute I heard of an upcoming work conference in New Orleans, my first thought was not of Bourbon Street and sanctioned drunken revelry, but the small southwestern Louisiana town of New Iberia. As a fan of writer James Lee Burke, I have been reading about New Iberia for more than a decade. Burke writes for the senses. His lyrical descriptions of place make New Iberia itself a character in his novels — every bit as much as the recurring Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell. For a book person, this was something of a pilgrimage. I wanted to feel the morning dew on my arms, to smell the rain, to hear the birds, to taste a cup of coffee at Victor’s, and to watch storm clouds build in the distance.

I did all that and more.

In Burke’s books, Dave, Clete, or both, often make the two-hour-plus drive from New Orleans along US-90. His words came alive as we passed swamps, broken down trailers, agricultural fields, and rusty looking bars. We drove through Morgan City, and before we reached New Iberia a storm gathered and the clouds seemed full-to-bursting. The rain finally came, and I was in heaven.

U.S. 90
U.S. 90

Pulling off of the highway, I was initially disappointed by the strip malls and fast food joints in New Iberia. I was expecting something untouched and idyllic. We found that just ahead, once we reached Main Street. While “progress” has reached the area, much of it remains intact. We turned onto Main Street and found Teche Street just to our right.

Bayou Teche Guest Cottage
Bayou Teche Guest Cottage

At the end of the road we found our accommodations for the next three nights – Bayou Teche Guest Cottage. When I started planning the trip I was thrilled to find this place. I had figured on a shady motor court just off the highway, like where Clete might stay, but instead I found a cottage nestled along the Bayou Teche

Bayou Teche Guest Cottage
Bayou Teche Guest Cottage

When I called to make reservations I spoke with the owner, Ms. Gayle, who told me to just bring a check – no credit cards and no pre-payment required. This somehow spoke to the New Iberia I had read about. We arrived and met Ms. Gayle. She lives in the house on the property. When I fessed up that the whole reason we were there was James Lee Burke she told me that his grandfather used to own the property and that the film crew for In the Electric Mist had rented out her house and the cottage. We then conspiratorially agreed there had never been a truly successful film adaptation of his books. When she said she had a pirogue for us to use I may have gone all giddy. May have. Definitely did. Might have squealed.

The storm was moving out, leaving sun showers in its wake, and we walked into town on the Main Street that James Lee Burke has described as the most beautiful in the country. I had reviewed a map provided by the town that highlights spots to check out.

New Iberia Sheriffs Dept
New Iberia Sheriffs Dept

We walked past the Burke House, the sheriff’s station, Books Along the Teche, the local library, Evangeline Theater, and Victor’s Cafeteria. As we turned around there was a rainbow over the town. Are you fucking kidding me? Well done, New Iberia Chamber of Commerce!

Main Street, New Iberia, Louisiana
Main Street, New Iberia, Louisiana

We stopped at a local bar, but the smoke and dead-animal heads were a buzzkill after the rainbow, so we took our “go-cups” of scotch and soda and strolled around town. They are amazingly lax about imbibing in Louisiana.

Along the Teche
Along the Teche

I loved the cottage. Each morning, I enjoyed my coffee on the porch and then drifted down to the dock along the Bayou Teche. I was surrounded by cypress knees and dripping trees, and on the second morning I saw a nutria swimming near the bank. We took the pirogue out for a little while one morning, as Dave often does in the books. I wanted to go out again that afternoon, and we managed to experience both a leech in the boat and a torrential downpour. Both of these were amazing, each in their very different ways. The leech explained why we hadn’t seen anyone swimming.

On the Bayou Teche in a pirogue
On the Bayou Teche in a pirogue

 

Leech in the pirogue
Leech in the pirogue

The afternoon of our last full day we stopped by the drive-thru daiquiri trailer (again, something mentioned in the books). I should note that I am not enough of a devotee to either go completely dry or on a bender; Dave’s drinking problems are his own. I learned that daiquiris are legal and do not violate open container laws because there is tape on the cup and paper on the straw. Tape and paper = totally legal. Did you know you can get ticketed for jaywalking in Washington, D.C.?

Drive Thru Daiquiris
Drive Thru Daiquiris
Totally legal
Totally legal

We also stopped by Books on the Teche. We browsed, and while paying for our books, I found out that the store offered signed first editions of “Jim’s books.” The proprietors knew him from way back, and he only does this for Books on the Teche and a bookstore near his current home in Montana. “Jim.” Giddy alert level 7. I pre-ordered his latest book, Wayfaring Stranger, despite the fact I was in the middle of reading an advance copy that a friend acquired for me.

Books Along the Teche
Books Along the Teche
Books Along the Teche
Books Along the Teche
Signed Copy of Wayfaring Stranger
Signed Copy of Wayfaring Stranger

We got up early on our last day in Louisiana so we could go to Victor’s Cafeteria before heading back to New Orleans for our flight home. They are open for early breakfast (6 a.m. – 10 a.m.) and lunch and we arrived a little after 6 a.m. The coffee was good. Watching the locals have breakfast before heading to work, I had no trouble imaging Dave amongst them. They even have a mock bait shop in the restaurant as homage to the character that has made the place famous.

Victor's Cafeteria
Victor’s Cafeteria
Victor's Cafeteria
Victor’s Cafeteria

Louisiana felt very alive – something I had to experience to truly appreciate. There is something about the air, water, and rain that are tangibly vibrant. The people there also helped make the trip – from the woman at the Goodwill with an accent so thick I had to translate for Patrick to the young cashier at Simoneaud’s Grocery & Market who carded me (yes!) and seemed pleased to hear how much we liked the area.

New Iberia was everything I hoped for and more. I traveled there because I wanted to experience a Louisiana that I knew I might not find. I was basically stalking a fictional character and written descriptions of a place. James Lee Burke’s power as a writer made every day feel like it was imbued with the magic of fiction. The place was real. So yes, the trip was about writer James Lee Burke, Dave Robicheaux, and Clete Purcell, but I loved southwest Louisiana well past those literary connections. And now I understand why Burke writes about it with such love, respect, and concern.

New Iberia, Louisiana
New Iberia, Louisiana

The only thing that could have made it better was if Budget had had an old convertible Cadillac to rent.

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11 thoughts on “Stalking Fictional Characters: James Lee Burke’s New Iberia”

  1. Love this post. I too became fascinated by New Iberia because of Burke’s books, so much so that not only did I visit, I went to work for the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office. It was an amazing time, and I’d love to go back.

    During my visit (May/June 2011), I also stayed at Ms. Gayle’s Teche Cottage.

    Thanks for posting.

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