Half of Paradise, by James Lee Burke ****

halfofparadiseJames Lee Burke has been writing for roughly fifty years now, and this was an early effort, published in 1965; I think it was his first, in fact. It starts out appearing to be short stories, but the narratives involving three individuals eventually make one crushing point about the dismal, cynical failure of the US criminal justice system, which rains down its uneven blows hardest upon the poorest sectors of the population. He never actually says it. He goes one better, by demonstrating it through his fiction.

Those who have read his Edgar winners (Neon Rain and Black Cherry Blues) have come to expect brilliant rendering of setting and complex, absolutely believable character development.

As for me, if Half of Paradise, not an award-winning story but strong nevertheless, a stark, brutal, depressing book reminiscent of some of Russell Banks’s work (but with a Southern exposure) were as good as Burke were ever going to become, I would still choose to read his work over that of most other writers. And because it is indeed grim–and anything with this subject matter ought to be–I always have another book going, too. Actually, I usually have four to six books that I read in rotation. By not making more than one or two of them morbid, I keep myself from plunging to the depths one otherwise might while reading it.

A worthy early effort, still worth reading today if you can stand the sting of the “n” word.

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