Friday, March 5, 2010

Tough men, tougher country

Rain Gods, by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Like the searing heat of his south Texas setting, James Lee Burke's incandescent prose burns into your brain. The aging battle-hardened world-weary sheriff Hackberry Holland that serves as his protagonist in this epic crime story is a principled man ill-fitting in his time who must match wits with an uncommon criminal, the mass murderer and Biblically megalomaniacal man known as Preacher. The narrative moves at crackling pace and the characters are drawn as carefully and sharply as a master craftsman etches burnished metal. Like all of Burke's books, this one is hard to put down, and perhaps is even more powerful than usual in an oeuvre replete with classic American writing that recalls Hemingway and Chandler in stylistic intensity, outshining the best genre contemporaries such as Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford.
If one is familiar with Burke's best-selling series of novels chronicling the adventures of a Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, this book will be of great interest because it shares all of the author's usual qualities in a new setting and with compelling characters. Hackberry (great name) is the brother of Billy Bob Holland, featured in another series of Burke's. He appeared one other time in a younger version, in Burke's early novel Lay Down My Sword and Shield. This guy is even more rough-hewn, hard-bitten and haunted than Burke's usual cop/detective main characters.
The immediacy of the descriptions of this barren border landscape create an existential flavor similar to No Country for Old Men, which this book recalls in some ways. But Burke's vision is much more redemptive. With this author, there is a strong moral center in the main character and a focus and power in the writing that carries an inspirational charge. At the same time, there is no victory in a James Lee Burke novel that is not extremely hard won, and Rain Gods is no exception. Reaching the end of this book one wants nothing so much than to kick back with a cold Mexican beer and rinse the parching dust out of one's lungs while waiting for the ultimate cleansing that the novel's title prophesies.