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Book Review: Wayfaring Stranger

By (July 25, 2014) One Comment

Wayfaring Strangerwayfaring stranger cover

by James Lee Burke

Simon & Schuster, 2014


Bestselling genre fiction authors sometimes feel the urge to escape the confines of their mandated third-act reveals and marriages and paint on a broader canvas, and since they’re more intensely acclimated to structure than their free-range fiction-writing cousins, they tend to gravitate to historical fiction. Romance doyenne Georgette Heyer, in between best-selling Regencies, took solace in her ever-expanding historical novel set in medieval England; Ken Follett likewise decamped from Cold War spycraft to medieval England (with spectacularly successful results); even Agatha Christie abandoned the village of St Mary Mead long enough to tell a story set in ancient Egypt. Loren Estleman, John Dickson Carr, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, and many others – it’s a long list, and in his latest book, James Lee Burke, author of a dozen popular murder mysteries starring no-nonsense New Orleans lawman Dave Robicheaux, joins the crowd.

Wayfaring Stranger ranges from the battlefields of World War II to the oil fields of mid-century Texas as it follows the fortunes of wartime friends Weldon Holland and Hershel Pine and the two women in their lives, Holland’s wife and soul-mate Rosita and Hershel’s aspiring actress wife Linda Gail. The bulk of the book’s plot revolves around the business struggles Holland and Pine undergo while trying to make their fortune surrounded by the kind of cutthroat oil men made famous in American culture by the TV show Dallas and in American political life by the Bush family. It’s in this context that they encounter the book’s only standout character, a Gatsy-esque businessman named Roy Wiseheart, who at one point tells Holland “Fellows like you set the standards for the rest of us” but who doesn’t really seem like he believes it: whether sleeping around on his wife or cheating at back-room boxing matches, Wiseheart is a mysterious, quasi-malevolent character who disregards Holland’s ‘standards’ whenever it suits him. Burke makes the canny move of giving Wiseheart an out-and-out evil wife, and this serves to distract us occasionally from Wiseheart’s own moral ambiguities – although Holland himself is never distracted:

We walked outside just as the rain cut loose. Then a strange event occurred that made me realize Roy Wiseheart would never be a quick study. A bolt of lightning struck a cypress tree not twenty yards from us, splintering the trunk, cooking the leaves, boiling the water around the roots, filling the air with a thunderous clap that was like someone slapping the flats of his hands on my eardrums. Mud and water and the detritus of the tree showered down on our heads. Wiseheart never moved. He stared at the smoke and flame rising from the base of the tree, his expression composed. “Incoming,” he said. “I told you. We’re on the wrong side of things, Holland.”

I wanted to get a lot of distance between me and Roy Wiseheart.

All of Burke’s many strengths as a writer are on full display in Wayfaring Stranger: his dialogue is as sharp as ever (and equally prone to occasional folksy banalities; “I guess setting boundaries is what civilization is all about,” a character philosophizes at one point. “We set boundaries, and then we have to live within them. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?”), his characters are drawn with great care but little fuss, and his scenery-setting is skillfully minimalist.

Some of his weaknesses are on display here as well, of course. In his thirty year career, Burke has never figured out, for example, what female characters could possibly be for (to be fair, he’s never shown much interest in figuring this out, either) – beyond undermining or validating his male characters, that is. Burke’s women are defined by their shortcomings, their physical afflictions, and their wardrobes but never by their personalities. And, as an authorial stand-in soliloquy by Holland makes clear, one of the many things Burke’s women don’t do is read Burke’s books. They can be safely talked about, because they’re not even in the room:

I have always believed that women have a much more accurate sense about other women than we do. I think the same is true of men: We know things about our own kind that women do not. The things we know are not good, either. There are feral creatures among our gender, throwbacks to an earlier time, and as a man, you know this as soon as you are in their proximity. For that reason I have never subscribed to the notion that we are all descended from the same tree. There are gatherers and hunters. The inclination of the latter is always in their eyes.

Still, in its sweep, Wayfaring Stranger shows even long-time Burke fans a seldom-seen side of this author. Although its narrative urgency virtually never lets up (pacing being a strong suit), this feels curiously more relaxed than the Robicheaux books, and its extensive research is incorporated as smoothly as if Burke had been writing historical fiction the whole time. Another such foray would be nice.