James Lee Burke’s works often explore the presence of evil in the world and how good people respond to it. His new novel, “Wayfaring Stranger,” continues that theme, offering more historical and geographical breadth than usual. It’s a happy gift to be able to follow Mr. Burke’s unforgettable characters across a larger swath of their life span.
“Wayfaring Stranger” introduces Weldon Holland as an adolescent living in Depression-era Texas with his mentally fragile mother and his grandfather, “a serious lawman.” His grandfather, Hackberry Holland, (a name familiar to readers of Mr. Burke’s two series about the lives of present day Hollands), was a former Texas Ranger, tangling with the likes of John Wesley Hardin and Pancho Villa.
Weldon’s father, conspicuous in his absence, has gone to look for pipeline work in East Texas and not returned. As Weldon says, “Back then, people had a way of walking down a tar road and crossing through a pool of heat and disappearing forever.”
The story follows Weldon from Texas, where he has a life-defining encounter with Bonnie and Clyde, through his harrowing military service in the European theater in World War II, to his even more dangerous swim with the sharks of the early days of Big Oil and the Hollywood studio system.
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Weldon, a thoughtful and almost unerringly moral man, was part of the “transitional generation,” the last to remember America as an agrarian rather than industrial nation, “with more dirt roads than paved highways.”
He goes to war without reserve, and while trapped behind Nazi lines, forges two important relationships: the first with Louisiana-born Herschel Pine, who will become his best friend and future business partner; and the second with his future wife, Rosita Lowenstein, a Jewish death camp survivor with Spanish communist family connections.
Weldon later observes: “In the years immediately following the war, Hollywood and the drilling industry were probably the only two portals through which a believer in the American dream could wander and suddenly find himself among amounts of wealth and levels of power he never imagined.”
And through these portals pass Weldon, Rosita, Herschel, and Herschel’s flawed, yet sympathetically rendered, wife Linda Gail, and they become drawn into the machinations of powerful people who wish to procure Weldon and Herschel’s successful oil pipeline company.
When rebuffed, these men wage a campaign to destroy Weldon and Herschel’s lives right down to the studs. The foreboding builds as the noose tightens around good people of humble origin with the temerity to pursue the American dream.
“Wayfaring Stranger” is a celebration of goodness in the face of evil: a sprawling saga peopled with gangsters, Hollywood types, oil men, old Army buddies haunted by wartime decisions, corrupt lawmen, rigid bureaucrats, and Red Scare adherents making tenuous connections, all leading to communism.
But what elevates a ripping good story to literary achievement is Mr. Burke’s lyrical prose. A reader always knows where he is in time and place in a James Lee Burke novel because these are elegantly conveyed in a completely non-fussy way.
As a result of these details, the reader inhabits an atmospheric world along with both major and minor characters whose humanity, for good or ill, is always addressed. There are no throwaway plot-device characters in Mr. Burke’s work. Everyone introduced comes to play, even if only for a short time.
Mr. Burke continues to speculate through Weldon on the nature of evil and the reasons for its presence in our world. Weldon’s internal debate about just how far he will go to deal with the relentless vendetta against his nearest and dearest is beautifully wrought, with references to the chivalry of “Song of Roland” and “Le Morte d’Arthur,” spiritual and biblical allusions, and the apparitional counsel of those (both alive and dead) not currently on the scene.
The elegiac mood is pervasive but not at all self-indulgent. The plot is always served. We may all be wayfaring strangers, being born and dying alone. But in James Lee Burke’s world, the journey in between can be lived with a belief in “friendship and faith in the unseen world” and the commitment to being true to oneself.
Kathleen Guzzi is a writer living in Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org).