James Lee Burke's terrific new novel, Wayfaring Stranger, is a departure from his three crime fiction series about former New Orleans detective Dave Robicheaux and two Texas lawmen, the cousins Hackberry and Billy Bob Holland.
But as I was reading it, a line from a crime fiction classic, Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, kept ringing through my head: "There ain't no clean way to make a hundred million bucks." It's a lesson Weldon Holland, the book's hero, learns most vividly and violently.
Wayfaring Stranger takes place mostly in mid 20th century America, in the boom years after World War II. But it begins in the grim depths of the Dust Bowl, on the Texas ranch owned by Weldon's grandfather, Hackberry Holland (also the grandfather of Burke's series characters of that surname). He seems to have stepped out of legend: "As a lawman, Grandfather had gone up against the likes of Bill Dalton and John Wesley Hardin, and in 1916, with a group of rogue Texas Rangers, he had helped ambush a train loaded with Pancho Villa's soldiers." He's an old man in 1934 but still a tough one, living with his mentally unstable daughter and her 16-year-old son, Weldon.
That year, Weldon has a brush with history that will haunt him all his life. Four people park their car in the woods near the ranch house, one of them a woman who is "pretty and had strawberry-blond hair and a beret tilted over one eye." She is Bonnie Parker, and the car's driver is Clyde Barrow, and although Weldon's interaction with the folk-hero bank robbers is brief and strange, he will never forget them, and the encounter will reverberate in surprising ways.
From there the novel jumps to World War II, with harrowing chapters describing Weldon's terrifying experience at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, where his unit is overrun by the German army's 70-ton King Tiger tanks. He is one of the few survivors, and he digs out another soldier buried alive in his foxhole by the tanks. Hershel Pine is a Louisiana country boy, and he will take his debt of gratitude to Weldon seriously. So will Rosita Lowenstein, a young woman whom they rescue from a labor camp that's just been deserted by the SS, "a place that had no equivalent except perhaps in photos from the devil's scrapbook." Weldon and Hershel find Rosita, a Spanish Jew, amid piles of bodies, her only signs of life her voice and a wink.
For Weldon, it's love at first sight. It's not easy, but eventually he marries Rosita and takes her back to Texas. Soon Hershel shows up with a get-rich scheme that involves, with poetic irony, using the technology that created those Tiger tanks to weld pipeline for the oil industry. Weldon is hesitant, but Hershel assures him he can smell money, and soon they are both rich.
Well, a degree of rich. Their success brings them in contact with other people who are rich in ways they can't even imagine — and who are in the habit of using and discarding men like Weldon and Hershel, especially a man who happens to be married to a Jew.
Or, in Hershel's case, a man who happens to be married to a woman so beautiful that she is, in classic Hollywood fashion, discovered by a photographer while she's stopped at a gas station and turned into a movie star. Linda Gail Pine was a teenager in Bogalusa, Ala., when she met and married war hero Hershel, but that was just the first dizzying change in her life.
Wayfaring Stranger begins with Weldon as its main character and first-person narrator. He is a complex man, well aware of his heritage of violence from a grandfather whose solution to most problems was "Sling blood on the trees." Weldon is far more introspective and conflicted, writing in his journal, "In truth, I feel powerless; hence I entertain all these violent thoughts and feelings." But he is clearly a hero — Burke connects him with allusions to chivalric tales like The Song of Roland and Le Morte d'Arthur — and a man of action.
But as the novel continues, Linda Gail becomes another major character, with long, third-person sections devoted to her experiences in Texas and Hollywood. At first, she's vain, self-centered and fickle, a foil for the serious and faithful Rosita. Her affair with another WWII veteran, the charming but enigmatic Roy Wiseheart , will boost her show business career — Roy's father is one of those unimaginably wealthy men, with connections to film industry powers like Jack Warner (and also to darker powers like mobster Bugsy Siegel). But Dalton Wiseheart once tried to buy Weldon's and Hershel's business and was turned down, and it rankles him. Dalton also shares a virulent anti-Semitism with Roy's chilly, even more wealthy wife, Clara, and they both have Rosita in their sights. How Linda Gail comes to understand her situation and figure out where her loyalties lie — and what she can do about it — adds an enriching layer to the novel.
In Wayfaring Stranger, Burke addresses many of the same themes he grapples with in his crime novels: power and corruption, integrity and depravity, America's indelible heritage of violence and oppression and the valor of those who have stood against it. In this novel, he gives those themes a sweep across several decades, wrapping them in his signature lushly electrifying descriptions and embodying them in intriguing characters in a tale that is a historical novel, a thriller, a romance and an irresistible read.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.