You know what is rare? A veteran and prodigious writer who never lets you down. Who, with each book, and I’m talking about a lot of books, makes you feel like you have discovered something new, learned some hidden truth about human behavior and society. James Lee Burke is one of those rarities. Book to book he keeps it going, never disappointing. Last year's masterpiece is just prelude to this year's new masterpiece.
It flat out astounds me. I can count the names of other writers in this category on one hand. There is no magic formula for this. It's something that comes from within, an indeterminate mixture of craft and wisdom and the relentless pursuit of perfection. It comes from knowing deep in the bones that life is about reconciliation and redemption. Burke's books carry these truths in spades.
About twenty-five years ago I picked up a book called The Neon Rain in a bookstore simply because I liked the cover. I read the flaps and read the first page and went to the cash register. Soon I was into my first ride with James Lee Burke.
The Neon Rain was that year's masterpiece. This year, we have Feast Day of Fools and my survey of Burke books in between concludes that he remains the heavy weight champ, a great American novelist whose work, taken individually or as a whole, is unsurpassed.
It is the writer's job to look out the window at the world and tell us how he sees it. In this book Burke puts the unblinking eye on the issues of politics and immigration and religion, synthesizing it all down to the character and impulse of violence and vengeance. At center, he gives us Hackberry Holland, a man who carries the past with him like the Texas sheriff's badge pinned to his chest. He gives us villains as treacherous as any ever put down on page. And he gives us prose as deeply etched and poetic as the landscape along the Texas-Mexico border. Here’s just one little taste that I loved: "Hackberry realized that he was about to witness one of those moments when evil reveals itself for what it is-–insane in its fury and self-hatred and its animus at whatever reminds it of itself."
This is a story about the evil that men do. It is allegory. It is knowledge. As one of the characters says to the man who has witnessed his cruelty, "Maybe one day you will understand men like us."
I think James Lee Burke does and this year's masterpiece takes us closer to the heart of the matter. It makes us look through the window and see the world in a new way. --Michael Connelly
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