Tomorrow, December 1st, is the release day for the latest novel from James Lee Burke, House of the Rising Sun, his, by my count, 35th. I reviewed it for the Independent this past week, which you can read HERE. That is the short version, and it’s a version I’m not very happy with. Indy reviews are 800 words maximum. Sometimes that seems like an insurmountable goal to attain, and others, like this time, it’s hard to say everything that needs to be said and still bring it home under the wire. I realized the day after I submitted it — on a shortened holiday week, of course, where the paper came out on Wednesday instead of Thursday — that I should have taken a different approach. So I’m offering another version, not so different, here. This is what I started with before I started cutting words to get to 800, moving things around, etc. I wish I could have let this book sink in a little, written the review, then thought about it for a day or two before submitting it. But that’s how things go down sometimes, I guess.
I have a special affinity for James Lee Burke, because the storied writer is practically my neighbor. From where I write he lives just a few miles away as a raven might fly, though we are separated by a river and a ridge or two and the trip from driveway to driveway would certainly exceed an hour. On a couple occasions I’ve sat next to him at the movie theater, separated only by the space of the chair on which he placed his ubiquitous cowboy hat. Hell, I even shared a waiting room at Les Schwab for an hour or so once. I’ve been to several of his entertaining events, and I’ve spoken with him a couple times, though certainly not enough for him to remember who I am. He is always a gentleman.
Even so I’ll admit I’m not one of those people who has read a pile of his writing, because there’s plenty of it. I’ve read my share, certainly, but throw out a title and I couldn’t necessarily tell you if it is a Robicheaux yarn, a story of one or other of the Holland characters, or something standalone (but hey, I can hardly remember the titles of my own stuff, so that’s no surprise). I love his work, and I always look forward to new releases with anticipation. As much of a fan as I am, though, I find his latest effort, House of the Rising Sun, to be something of a mixed bag.
The book kicks off in 1916, in Mexico, in the heat of revolution. Hackberry Holland — the grandfather of modern era Burke series characters Hackberry (the younger) and his cousin Billy Bob Holland — is the lone survivor of a group of Texas Rangers who ambushed a train that led to many civilian casualties, including women and children. Holland, who participated in the attack, was along only because he was trying to track down his estranged son, Ishmael. Ishmael is a captain in the United States Army, leading a group of black soldiers on a mission to the south of the period’s rather permeable border. Holland staggers into an encampment where a group of Mexicans have set an ambush for the American soldiers at the site of a brothel. There he meets the madame of the place, Beatrice DeMolay, one of the three primary female characters to bedevil him throughout the book. Mayhem ensues, and Holland escapes after destroying a wagon full of stolen weapons that were slated to become the possession of Austrian arms dealer (and primary villain) Arnold Beckman. He also comes into possession of a religious artifact that may or may not be the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus drank from, which Beckman will go to any length to retrieve.
From there we bounce back in time to 1891. We meet Ruby Dansen, the feisty woman much younger than Holland whom he convinces to come with him to his ranch, who ultimately becomes the mother of Ishmael. When the two talk of marriage, Hackberry reveals he is still technically married to a woman named Maggie Bassett, though they have been estranged for years. When he takes to the court to sue for divorce, he is denied. Bassett, who (we presume) wants to stay married only to secure Holland’s wealth when he dies, is brought into play. She is a wiley former prostitute with many secret machinations of her own, and her renewed involvement with Holland sets the stage for the “betrayal” hinted at in the first section that costs Holland his relationship with his son.
At this point we are one third of the way through the book, time jumps to 1918, and Ishmael is leading his men now in World War I. The plot moves forward from there, with Holland juggling his relationships with the three women, his attempt to find and reconcile with his son, and the conflicts he faces with the diabolical Beckman.
While not a mystery in any sense — it’s a Western, really — the story manages several twists as it unfolds. Burke’s gifts, particularly in describing scenery and the world his characters live in, are in fine form. There are sentences and paragraphs as beautiful as anything he’s ever written. One need go no farther than the opening sentence for proof:
The sun had just crested on the horizon like a misplaced planet, swollen and molten and red, lighting a landscape that seemed sculpted out of clay and soft stone and marked by the fossilized tracks of animals with no names, when a tall barefoot man wearing little more than rags dropped his horse’s reins and eased himself off the horse’s back and worked his way down an embankment into a riverbed chained with pools of water that glimmered as brightly as blood in the sunrise.
House is an adventure story and a love story, and is clearly an additional piece in Burke’s effort at, when combined with last year’s Wayfaring Stranger, a sweeping family epic featuring the Hollands. Hackberry Holland’s chapter features heartbreak and pathos and cruelty to go around, while aiming for, hopefully, some kind of redemption. It also has its share of problems.
My main issue is with Hackberry Holland himself. He is too much the archetypal Western tough guy who often speaks like a poet but is also the baddest hombre around. He is wealthy and has an insurmountable code of right and wrong, yet is haunted by deeds of his past and, therefore, prone to binges of violence and alcohol. He’s a giant of a man and a hit with the ladies (as an indication of his manly epicness, Maggie Bassett says at one point to Holland’s son Ishmael, in talking about her similarities with the young man’s mother, “We both got involved with a man who has ten inches of penis and three of brain.”). A former law man himself, he is a source of constant frustration to law enforcement for going off like a loose cannon and taking the law into his own hands. Yet for all his intelligence and willingness to go off the rails when it comes to violence, he is constantly being manipulated and won’t allow his heart anywhere near the lattitude his trigger finger has. Frankly, I found him to be an asshole, and deserving of the heartbreak he’d brought onto himself.
I hesitate to call House a misfire. It’s enjoyable — Burke always is — but could probably stand to lose about a quarter of its heft. It gets slow in the middle third; shave off a few of Holland’s efforts to track down and beat on people, and we’d have a tighter story with a character more worth pulling for.