James Lee Burke may have given over his detective stories, at least for a while. But he hasn’t forgotten about evil. In his dense new novel, Burke, author of 20 Dave Robicheaux mysteries and numerous other works, explores the very idea of sin. But rather than focus on one crime, or one case, he immerses his protagonist deeper and deeper into the woes of the world as the casualties mount.
It’s a topic Burke knows well. The descendant of tough Texas lawmen, he uses his family as the basis for Weldon Avery Holland, the protagonist and self-possessed narrator of “Wayfaring Stranger.” The grandson of a legendary lawman, Holland is 16 when he first encounters the dark side. It’s 1934. Texas is part of the Dust Bowl, and bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are hiding out briefly in the woods on his grandfather’s ranch. The young Holland falls hard for the pretty strawberry-blond outlaw. But he is his grandfather’s heir, and with a sense of justice that overtakes his infatuation, he ends up firing his grandfather’s revolver into their car as they flee.
His story then jumps to 1944 with Holland now a second lieutenant in World War II on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. As German tanks sow terror, he saves the life of his sergeant, Hershel Pine. When they end up in a newly abandoned Nazi death camp, they also rescue a young woman, Rosita Lowenstein, whom Holland ends up marrying.
Once the three are back home, Pine brings Holland in as a partner in his fledgling oil pipeline company. But along with his gratitude and intense loyalty, Pine has weaknesses. A genius where welding and steel are concerned, the country-innocent Pine is easily manipulated by his grasping and childlike wife, Linda Gail.
To help his friend — and possibly save the marriage — Holland ends up allying himself with a shady insurance man whose own war record was far from clean. As the two friends follow their fortunes around Texas and Louisiana, they find the burgeoning postwar oil business to be as dangerous, and as deceptive, as any battle they have yet encountered, with rich and powerful competitors gunning to destroy their business.
Holland is a classic Burke hero. Like Robicheaux and his other series protagonists, Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland (Weldon’s grandfather), he is self-contained to the point of stoicism — a real Texas type. This may seem at odds with Burke’s ornate, Southern Gothic writing style, but it works. Long and beautifully sensual descriptive passages convey the hero’s nostalgic longing even as he shoulders his burdens: the price of a sensitive soul in an increasingly soulless world.
It’s not that Holland is reticent about his feelings. His love for his wife is passionate, his belief in her unshakable, despite his enemies’ attempts to separate them. It is more that Holland’s code of behavior is at odds with the complexity he observes in the world around him.
Holland’s absolutism makes him vulnerable, as his nearly biblical sense of morality compels him to act on his convictions, specifically his loyalty to his old Army buddy whose marital woes get them mixed up with murderers and cheats. But Holland is a realist, accepting — and mourning — the world in its fallen state as he does what he believes he must.
Burke does have his weaknesses. Fans will recognize recurring descriptive phrases — air smelling of “humus” or “like the odor of birth or fish roe” — from other books. Plus, the author tends to eulogize a bit much about simplicity, whether in oil-field workers who are “brave and stoic by nature, and never complained of the conditions or the risks they took” or the beauty of cattle. In context, however, such lines work as motifs, establishing the protagonist’s longing for an earthy innocence. A time, Holland recognizes, that even in his grandfather’s day was already long past.