'House of the Rising Sun': James Lee Burke returns with another bold Holland family epic
January 24, 2016 12:00 AM
"House of the Rising Sun," by James Lee Burke.
James Lee Burke.
By Kathleen Guzzi
James Lee Burke returns to his Texas roots to revisit the Holland family in “House of the Rising Sun,” and contrary to typical family sagas, the narrative travels backward. The time period of “House of the Rising Sun” precedes that of Mr. Burke’s previous work, “Wayfaring Stranger,” taking us back a generation or so to the era of the Mexican Revolution and World War I.
"HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN"
By James Lee Burke Simon & Schuster ($27.99).
Hackberry Holland, a grandfather when we met him in “Wayfaring Stranger,” is a young man in “House of the Rising Sun.” Hack is 6 feet 8 inches of equal parts hero and hot mess; a Texas Ranger “when it suited him” who loses his badge several times over his career for drunkenness and spectacular episodes of rogue justice.
One such episode occurs during a brutal solo encounter with Mexican soldiers in which Hackberry prevails with the aid of a shrewd bordello madam. Holland escapes, but not without bloodshed, making off with a religious artifact he finds in a hearse loaded with munitions parked outside the brothel. The vehicle belongs to an Austrian arms dealer, Arnold Beckman. In typical Holland scorched-earth fashion, Hack sets the hearse on fire on his way out. When the brothel madam tells Hack that Beckman is the most evil man she’s ever known, Hack shrugs it off. “All the bad ones seem that way until you punch their ticket.” But the stage is set for a future where Beckman plots to recover the artifact, believed to be, of all things, the Holy Grail.
Beckman is the requisite James Lee Burke antagonist who embodies evil in its basest form, with no redemptive qualities. He targets Holland’s estranged son Ishmael, a wounded World War I hero in order to regain “his” property. Holland spends much of his time searching for his son, from whom he was separated when Ishmael was a small boy. Drink, duty, and my least favorite of all literary devices, the hijacked letter, conspired to keep Hack from living with Ishmael’s mother, the fearless Ruby Dansen.
Hackberry Holland’s quest for his son takes on the ebb and flow of a crusade, with victories and setbacks and abundant mythical and religious references. Reality sometimes takes a back seat to beautifully written passages of mystical dream visitations and allegorical vignettes embedded within a classical Western adventure story.
Hack is “old West” and hasn’t quite come to terms with the ways in which the American West is changing in the time between the two World Wars. So he takes on the hugely powerful and wealthy Arnold Beckman with an OK Corral mentality.
Mr. Burke has crafted another epic tale in an unforgettable landscape about an imperfect man’s search for redemption. Once again, every member of the sprawling cast of characters, minor to major, makes an impression, and rings true.
Don’t be distracted by the famous historical figures that often cross paths with Mr. Burke’s protagonists, or by the improbability of the Holy Grail in Mexico. There’s likely magic and legend in every family history.
Mr. Burke’s novels always offer a compelling story. But, the reader is rewarded with a multitude of haunting themes that run deep and wide. Pick and choose the ones you wish to explore. They are skillfully and non-intrusively woven into the narrative. But these layers are what always elevate a James Lee Burke novel above any genre tale.
Kathleen Guzzi is a writer living in Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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