August 03, 2014

The mastery of James Lee Burke

I've said many times before that James Lee Burke is probably the finest writer working in America today. His latest book, Wayfaring Stranger, is not going to dissuade me from that opinion.

Burke has had two strands to his fictional world - one of them involves the one-time police officer and private detective, Dave Robicheaux, who has featured in the majority of his novels over the last 30 or so years. The other strand plays with the fictional Holland family - apparently a meditation on Burke's own family, the Hollans. He has gone backwards and forwards in time with this family, and in Wayfaring Stranger we alight just before, during and after the Second World War.

Wendel Holland lives with his slightly detached mother and his grandfather (the hero of an earlier Burke novel), and at some point in the early 1930s has a run-in with Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, a meeting which colours and illuminates his adult years.

During the war he has a second-in-command called Hershel Pine, with whom he later sets up an oil-drilling business back in Texas. What's fascinating about this is the opportunity it affords Burke to stretch his legs, to talk about a different period and use his gifts for descriptive writing to capture that time for us:
One offshore drilling rig after another punched into a pay sand, and the gas flares burning far out on the horizon gave witness to the birth of a new secular religion. We had arrived, and the technological reach of our nation knew no bounds. The bejeweled refineries along the Texas coast, smoking like an outer-space facility inside the great American night, were not a blight but a continuation of Walt Whitman’s ode to American promise. The displacement of an emerald-green swampland of sawgrass and cypress and gum trees was forgotten in the sacrifice that had to be made for the greater good.
     The brothels of Port Arthur, Texas City, and Galveston never closed. A bottle of cold beer, served in an illegal gambling joint on the beach, was twenty cents. A paper plate full of boiled shrimp was thirty-five. And we were part of it all. A dance orchestra played under the stars on the amusement pier that extended into Galveston Bay, the waves bursting against the pilings beneath our feet. We flew to Fort Lauderdale and hit quinellas and even the daily double at the racetrack as a matter of course.
In the first line of this excerpt you can see Burke's gift for allying graphic and descriptive language to something broader and grander: the drilling rigs 'punch' into 'pay sand' and bear witness to 'the birth of a new secular religion'. He's able to take the very particular and concrete and see its ramifications for a country and a culture, to use language to sculpt a vision of how human beings live.

The way Burke operates is to introduce us to a number of strong-willed characters and then set them against each other. Wendel Holland marries Rosita, a Jewish woman he rescues from an extermination camp, and Hershel marries Linda Gail, an attractive country girl who goes on to become a Hollywood star. Around these four central characters buzz a number of wealthy men and women, chief amongst them Roy Wiseheart, his wife and his father, who seems to be the book's chief villain. Also involved are a crooked cop and a former army colleague of Wendel's from Germany. The book largely consists of pitting these people against each other in a succession of scenes as the plot events develop: Linda Gail's Hollywood career, the growing oil business owned by Wendel and Hershel, the attempts to have Rosita sent back to Europe and the corruption that surrounds all of these actions. Although we're now used to learning about the influence of Big Money on the political process in America, Burke portrays the power plays that were part and parcel of political life even in 1947. The helplessness that Wendel feels, and which drives the last quarter of the book, is a helplessness in the face of corrupt polity that we can all appreciate, especially in these post-Snowden days.

So scene after scene explodes as Burke shows fully-developed characters, with full vocabularies, probing each other for weaknesses and asserting their moral position:
“What’s the ‘real deal’?” I said to Wiseheart.
“You don’t rattle. You refinanced yourself, and you’re back in the game. I admire that.”
“How do you know these things?”
“Come on up to the highway with me. I want your advice about something.”
“You need to explain how you know about my financial situation.”
“You think a blabbermouth like Lloyd Fincher can keep a confidence? Wake up.”
“What do you want advice about?”
“It’s not about business.”
“Will you answer my question, sir?”
He looked sideways and blew out his breath. “It’s personal as it gets. Call it a spiritual problem.”
“I’m probably not your guy.”
Look how the speakers don't answer each other's questions but try to follow their own agenda:
“How do you know these things?”
“Come on up to the highway with me. I want your advice about something.”
 Also, how unafraid they are of being confrontational:
“Will you answer my question, sir?”
This is a feature of Burke's strategy throughout his books - his characters don't feel constrained by politeness or reticence but say more or less what's on their mind. In addition, Burke often shows them acting on their beliefs so that a character responds to the action and thus explains what's happening to us:
“My wife has multiple mental problems. I won’t go into detail. Put it this way: Her father liked little girls. One night he decided to drive himself and his wife off a cliff into the Atlantic Ocean. Since the night her parents died, my wife has been an ice cube.”
I was trying to signal the waitress to bring the check.
“I say something wrong?” Wiseheart asked.
Here, Wiseheart's question indicates to us that Wendel's action in asking for the check is peremptory or unexpected, which in turn shows us Wendel's frame of mind - he doesn't want to hear about Wiseheart's married life.  

Burke's books are loquacious and often revolve around buried secrets being unearthed. In the first two thirds of the books the characters get to know each other at the same speed that the reader learns about them. Their back-stories emerge from the conversations even while the events of the plot emerge. Consequently the novels are both plot-driven and character-driven. It's the characters' responses to other characters that force them to take action, and this action has consequences which lead to further action. Individual psychology creates a set of responses based on belief-sets, which in turn lead to action and further responses from other people. The reader watches, and reads, in a participatory dream, wondering what's going to happen next.

This doesn't mean, however, that Burke is unaware of the requirements of the genre in which he's writing. Although Wayfaring Stranger isn't exactly a crime novel, there is criminality involved and, towards the end, a series of tense events and a chase that Burke handles with his usual skill. His ability to write action scenes that are grounded in physical reality is unsurpassed. This is a description of a brief boxing bout:
     A Mexican kid pulled the string on the bell, and Irish Danny Flannigan jabbed Roy once in the forehead, once on the eye, then hit him with a right cross that folded Roy’s face against his shoulder and bounced him off the ropes. The next blow caught Roy square on the nose and splattered blood all over his chest and shoulders.
     “You all right?” Flannigan said, stepping back. “Maybe you ought to go lie down. You don’t look too good.”
     Roy swung at him and missed. Flannigan hit him with a combination of blows that were devastating, pinning him against the turnbuckle, working on his rib cage and face and then his rib cage again, hooking him under the heart, the kind of blow that’s like a piece of broken wood traveling through the vitals. Roy was bent over, trying to cover up, blood running from his nose over his upper lip. 
Notice how in the last paragraph, he describes the blow not just "like a piece of wood" but like a "piece of broken wood" - the sense of a jagged edge being pushed into your vitals is much more telling and aggressive. Also, he finds the specific words to pin the event to reality: the turnbuckle, rib cage, the upper lip. Burke's prose is always precise and builds the world he describes word by word.

There are some faults with the book - I never really understood Lloyd Fincher's role, or how Roy Wiseheart's father was manipulating events behind the scene - but these are minor points when set against Burke's muscular prose and his understanding of both human psychology and the craft needed to expose it. Wayfaring Stranger is another masterpiece.

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