“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: WAYFARING STRANGER by James Lee Burke

Best known for his series of books featuring Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke offers a fascinating historical crime novel in Wayfaring Stranger (Orion). Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland will be familiar to Burke’s fans, having first appeared in one of Burke’s earliest novels, Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971), and more recently in Rain Gods (2009) and Feast of Fools (2011), but the Hackberry Holland we meet here is an older incarnation, a laconic US Marshal who made his reputation when he faced down the infamous outlaw John Wesley Hardin.
  That ‘Wild West’ motif is a recurring one throughout Wayfaring Stranger, even though the story opens in Depression-era Texas, when the appearance of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow make an indelible impression on the teenage Weldon Holland, Hackberry’s grandson and protégé. Weldon believes Bonnie and Clyde to be heroes who should be celebrated, as were earlier outlaws, for their courage and willingness to flout the law of the land; his grandfather, older and wiser, understands the danger to civilised society such loose cannons represent.
  Later, another formative experience during the Battle of the Bulge gives Weldon a sense of perspective on life that his enemies lack when he starts drilling for oil in Louisiana during the post-WWII years. Unwilling to bend the knee to his social and economic superiors, and determined above all else to protect his Jewish wife Rosita, whom he met whilst escaping from the Germans during the war, Weldon finds himself caught up in a very dirty game of industrial espionage.
  If the Dave Robicheaux novels have grown thematically repetitive in the years since Burke’s masterpiece The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007), as Robicheaux ruminates at length on his mortality, Wayfaring Stranger represents an intriguing tangent to his body of work (Burke has published 33 novels to date).
  The acknowledged grandmaster of the American crime novel (he has won the Mystery Writers of America ‘Edgar Award’ three times, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988), Burke here employs the framework of the crime narrative to write a sprawling epic spanning the embryonic years of what he describes as ‘the New American Empire’. “Inside its crassness was a kind of meretricious innocence,” writes Burke, “one you might associate with a nation’s inception or perhaps its demise, like the twilight of the gods or an antebellum vision borrowed from the world of Margaret Mitchell.”
  Bonnie and Clyde and a cameo appearance by Bugsy Siegel initially appear to root the story in a conventional tale of warring gangsters, but Burke has a more ambitious story to tell here. “There’s a difference between justice and vengeance,” Rosita tells Weldon, but while justice and / or vengeance are traditionally the goal of the crime novel’s protagonists, Burke has in mind the kind of hero that long predates the crime novel. “Roy says we’re wayfaring strangers, like the Canterbury Pilgrims trying to wend their way past the Black Death. He says death is the only reality in our lives.” Repeated references to Chaucer, Shakespeare, the chivalric romances and the Song of Roland give us a sense of the broader canvas Burke is working with here – indeed, Burke eventually goes so far as to allow Weldon to claim that “the Homeric epic doesn’t have to be discovered inside a book; it begins just west of Forth Worth and extends all the way to Santa Monica.”
  Recounted in Burke’s familiar blend of Southern vernacular and lush, dreamy prose-poetry, Weldon Holland’s exploits may not reach the heights of Homer’s heroes, but Wayfaring Stranger is nevertheless a wonderfully ambitious and absorbing novel. ~ Declan Burke

  This review first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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