I’m a long-standing fan of James Lee Burke, originally getting hooked on his Dave Robicheaux stories, but this one (a Hackberry Holland) is I think one of his best. Brilliant.
Certain themes or motifs run through all Burke’s work: often ex-drunk, wounded, deeply flawed main characters; strong wildly badass female characters; appalling ‘morally insane’ villains, bad enough to keep you checking your doors and windows at night; a more or less traditional crime story; reflections on the past, America, social injustice, the cruelty that man inflicts upon man, good versus evil; a sense of deep spirituality that is juxtaposed with self-serving and bigoted religiosity; and a profound sense of landscape and place, infused with an almost hyperbolic richness of language that is pure poetry. I’m not a purple prose kind of person, but I love James Lee Burke’s: it’s powerful, and beautiful, and probably some of the most evocative prose I’ve ever read.
I liked this book, very much. It has all the elements of his other books, but if anything even clearer and richer and stronger. The main baddie – there is the usual pantheon of lesser gang-style thugs – is a deeply complex killer known as the Preacher, who thinks he is the scourge of God, but maybe in another way is seeking redemption for the evil that he has done. He exercises the power of life and death over others with sometimes surprising compassion, usually chilling brutality. Hackberry Holland, the aging sheriff on his tail, is haunted by memories of his dead wife, his alcoholic and abusive past, and horrific wartime experiences. There are three women who are each in their own way incredibly powerful: Pam Tibbs, Hackberry’s tough and mercurial deputy; the singer Vicki Gaddis, collector of broken creatures including terribly scarred young soldier Pete Flores; and Esther Dolan, a Jewish woman whose bone-deep understanding of the oppression her people have suffered on the southern Siberian steppes, informs her courage and understanding of the evil that men do.
I usually read quickly but I took this book as slowly as I could, to absorb the richness of the prose. The story isn’t incidental, it’s key to driving the characters and their actions, but I didn’t feel the need to rush through to find out the end, because the other elements are so powerful.
Some people found this a dark read, but I didn’t. Although it does paint a picture of exploited blue collar workers and immigrants, broken veterans, rampant greed and gangsterism: an ugly underbelly. If America as an empire is truly on the decline, then Burke may be its most vivid chronicler.
But ultimately it's not dark, but uplifting. I love the humanity that prevails over all the darkness. Ordinary people – the singer, the scarred young soldier, the goofy nightclub owner Nick who loves his family and stands up against all odds, even Esther his wife – in the end, their simple courage and determination shine through. No heroics: but the strength of their relationships and decency are the right stuff, what counts.
MUST READ – but maybe not an easy one. I just read one reviewer who said he would go out on a limb here and call this a masterpiece. I think I would second that.
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