Wayfaring Stranger: A Novel, by James Lee Burke *****

wayfaringstrangerThis reviewer has long been in awe of James Lee Burke’s poetic lyricism and his ability to weave together complex story elements so that they segue together at the novel’s end in a miraculous yet entirely credible manner. At times the author hints at magical realism, but the buck always ends right on solid ground. I wouldn’t care to see it any other way.

This is his most recent release, but I didn’t receive an ARC for this; I got it for Christmas. It was perched at the top of my wish list, and rightly so. Take Burke’s capacity to spin great fiction—here it is a blend of historical and detective fiction—and add to it his absolute disillusionment with American capitalism, in particular with regard to oil companies, and with the cops who favor the elite and shaft the poor, and he’s talking my kind of talk.

The cherry on the sundae? This man is old enough to be your grandfather, most likely, yet he has labeled this book Weldon Holland #1. That’s right, it’s the beginning of a new series.

I love it.

Our story commences in the dust bowl, in the midst of a worldwide depression. Two badass youngsters named Bonnie and Clyde have shot up the South. Burke sends them across the Holland family property at the outset, but they disappear and the story continues. I was momentarily confused, because I had heard that this novel was about Bonnie and Clyde. Now that I’ve read it I can tell you honestly that it isn’t, but it is.

Weldon Holland grows up and fights during World War II; he rescues a starving woman from the rubble of a concentration camp, and he falls in love with her. They are married, and when he comes home, he brings her with him. It is a miracle that he makes it back alive, given the incompetent leadership of his platoon. And yet, that same arrogant, self-absorbed son of a bitch that nearly got him killed ends up funding the pipeline that Weldon and his war buddy and business partner, Hershel start up. Sometimes life bites you in the ass and comes back for seconds, and this is one such instance.

“When you live in a democracy, there are certain things you believe will never happen to you. Then a day comes when the blindfold is removed and you discover the harsh nature of life at the bottom of the food chain.”

Time and again, those with wealth and power find ways to insult and ignore people in whose footprints they are not fit to walk. When they do things that are morally wrong, they become inaccessible rather than own up to their misdeeds. When they absolutely must discuss these things, they take the passive voice. It’s the same one mass killers use to address their victims’ families in a court of law after their lawyer tells them that an apology may make a difference in their sentencing. They never say they did things; things happened.

And Bonnie and Clyde? What of those two angry young people that the sheriff never intended to even try to arrest rather than kill? How do they fit into this more contemporary tale?

I think the answer is that they become a metaphor of sorts; it’s entirely possible that their foolishness was just their way of “getting even for the rest of us.”

When I write reviews, I generally do so quickly and easily. It’s not usually a hard thing to do. Yet in this case, I’ve stewed about this book for three days since I finished reading it, and I am still not satisfied that I have done it justice.

I guess that’s the thing about magically realistic literature; it has to be read to be understood.

You just have to read it. Pay for the book. Pay for it in hard cover. You won’t be sorry.

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