James Lee Burke is a legend, a venerable and highly respected writer known for his luminous prose and quirky characters. In this, his second work of historical fiction in a planned trilogy, he demonstrates that he can still work magic better than ever. I received this DRC from Net Galley and Simon and Schuster in exchange for an honest review, but I would have paid full freight if I had to, and I rarely say that about any book anymore.
Our protagonist is Aaron Holland Broussard, and the setting is Houston, Texas in the 1950’s. Aaron is a child of the middle class. His father drinks too much and his mother is mentally ill, suffering terribly from depression during a time period when tranquilizers and electric shock were the best—and worst—that modern medicine had to offer. But he’s got a solid home to return to at the end of each day, his own bedroom, and a fine collection of pets. All told, his life is a great deal better than those that the young people around him face, especially his closest friend, Saber Bledsoe.
Diehard Burke fans will recognize in young Saber the ghost of Clete Purcel, a favorite character in the author’s Dave Robicheaux series. The role played by Saber, and before him by Clete, is that of the loyal friend that will do anything for the protagonist but whose judgment is often poor and whose impulse control is nearly nonexistent. At times the friend lightens things up with off-the-chain behavior, and at others the same friend creates problems that the protagonist has to try to repair. Even without Saber, it’s easy to become part of drama in this time and place, because
“Violence was an inextricable part of the culture; it hung in the air, perhaps passed down from the massacres at Goliad and the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto or the feuds during Reconstruction or the systematic extermination of the Indians.”
Burke is widely known for his capacity to create settings from the natural and pastoral on down to the bizarre, the exotic, and sometimes the polluted or corrupted. When I entered an exclusive men’s club as an imaginary companion of Aaron’s Broussard’s, I was fascinated immediately not only by the description of the club, but by my anticipation of what Burke might do with it.
But let’s step back a minute and take it from the top. Early in this story, Aaron is at a drive-in restaurant when he sees the lovely Valerie Epstein get into a conflict with her boyfriend, Grady Harrelson, a child of the local bourgeoisie. Grady lives on “…that giant island of oak trees and wealth and faux antebellum splendor…” Grady usually gets what Grady wants, but not this time.
When Grady strikes Valerie, Aaron intercedes. Aaron and Valerie– “I never saw anyone who had so much light in her eyes ”–fall in love. Ah, youth! Mr. Burke may be in his sunset years, but he remembers adolescence like it was yesterday, and he paints a vivid, poignant picture of impossible, doomed love on the part of two young people that imagine so much more than can ever come true.
Meanwhile, Aaron finds he has accidentally created problems his family doesn’t need; combine down-and-out, loyal Saber Bledsoe, a thirst for justice, a sadistic shop teacher, a rodeo that features a notoriously vicious bull named Original Sin, and the local Mob. Toss in a Cadillac with a small fortune concealed in the door panels and some vigilante justice, and you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Readers always deserve to know when some racist terms are going to be tossed their way, and they’re here in plentitude. They span across just about every race and ethnicity, and keep company with ugly remarks about women—by bad guys, of course—and some homophobic remarks common to the time period. On the one hand, these things were part of the scenery of Caucasian middle-America in the 1960’s when this reviewer was growing up, and so I cannot imagine them not also being common in the decade before it, in which this story is set. On the other hand, for some folks one really nasty word can ruin an entire novel, and so if that’s you, step away from this one. This also serves as an advisory to teachers considering using this novel in the classroom; frankly, the literacy level is really past what the average high school student can handle anyway.
That said, the prose of the final two pages is so glorious that I stopped breathing as I read them without realizing it till the last word was read, and I felt myself exhale. The first book in this series was strong, but this one is still more compelling. I am an Atheist, but Mr. Burke can tell a redemption tale like nobody’s business and leave me yearning for more, more, more. I read several books simultaneously, and it always strikes me that Burke’s work is vastly superior to just about everything else out there. May he live and write forever!
Highly recommended, and available tomorrow, August 30, 2016.