Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke



  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 145164311X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451643114

Product Description

 

Sheriff Hackberry Holland patrols a small Southwest Texas border town with a deep and abiding respect for the citizens in his care. Still mourning the loss of his cherished wife and locked in a perilous almost-romance with his deputy, Pam Tibbs, a woman many decades his junior, Hackberry feeds off the deeds of evil men to keep his own demons at bay. 
When alcoholic ex-boxer Danny Boy Lorca witnesses a man tortured to death in the desert and reports it, Hack’s investigation leads to the home of Anton Ling, a regal, mysterious Chinese woman whom the locals refer to as La Magdalena and who is known for sheltering illegals. Ling denies having seen the victim or the perpetrators, but there is something in her steely demeanor and aristocratic beauty that compels Hackberry to return to her home again and again as the investigation unfolds. Could it be that the sheriff is so taken in by this creature who reminds him of his deceased wife that he would ignore the possibility that she is just as dangerous as the men she harbors?

The danger in the desert increases tenfold with the return of serial murderer Preacher Jack Collins, whom The New York Times called “one of Burke’s most inspired villains.” Presumed dead at the close of Rain Gods, Preacher Jack has reemerged with a calm, single-minded zeal for killing that is more terrifying than the muzzle flash of his signature machine gun. But this time he and Sheriff Holland have a common enemy.

Praised by Joyce Carol Oates for “the luminosity of his writerly voice,” James Lee Burke returns with his most allegorical novel to date, illuminating vital issues of our time—immigration, energy, religious freedom—with the rich atmosphere and devastatingly flawed, authentic characters that readers have come to celebrate during the five decades of his brilliant career.

About the Author

 

James Lee Burke, a rare winner of two Edgar Awards, and named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, is the author of twenty-nine previous novels and two collections of short stories, including such New York Times bestsellers as The Glass RainbowSwan Peak, The Tin Roof Blowdown, Last Car to Elysian Fields and Rain Gods.  He lives in Missoula, Montana. 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One
 
Some people said Danny Boy Lorca’s visions came from the mescal that had fried his brains, or the horse-quirt whippings he took around the ears when he served time on Sugar Land Farm, or the fact he’d been a middleweight club fighter through a string of dust-blown sinkholes where the locals were given a chance to beat up what was called a tomato can, a fighter who leaked blood every place he was hit, in this case a rumdum Indian who ate his pain and never flinched when his opponents broke their hands on his face.

Danny Boy’s black hair was cut in bangs and fitted his head like a helmet. His physique was as square as a door, his clothes always smelling of smoke from the outdoor fires he cooked his food on, his complexion as dark and coarsened by the sun and wind as the skin on a shrunken head. In summer, he wore long-sleeve cotton work shirts buttoned at the throat and wrists to keep the heat out, and in winter, a canvas coat and an Australian flop hat tied down over his ears with a scarf. He fought his hangovers in a sweat lodge, bathed in ice water, planted by the moon, cast demons out of his body into sand paintings that he flung at the sky, prayed in a loincloth on a mesa in the midst of electric storms, and sometimes experienced either seizures or trances during which he spoke a language that was neither Apache nor Navaho, although he claimed it was both.

Sometimes he slept in the county jail. Other nights he slept behind the saloon or in the stucco house where he lived on the cusp of a wide alluvial floodplain bordered on the southern horizon by purple mountains that in the late-afternoon warp of heat seemed to take on the ragged irregularity of sharks’ teeth.

The sheriff who allowed Danny Boy to sleep at the jail was an elderly six-feet-five widower by the name of Hackberry Holland, whose bad back and chiseled profile and Stetson hat and thumb-buster .45 revolver and history as a drunk and a whoremonger were the sum total of his political cachet, if not his life. To most people in the area, Danny Boy was an object of pity and ridicule and contempt. His solipsistic behavior and his barroom harangues were certainly characteristic of a wet brain, they said. But Sheriff Holland, who had been a prisoner of war for almost three years in a place in North Korea called No Name Valley, wasn’t so sure. The sheriff had arrived at an age when he no longer speculated on the validity of a madman’s visions or, in general, the foibles of human behavior. Instead, Hackberry Holland’s greatest fear was his fellow man’s propensity to act collectively, in militaristic lockstep, under the banner of God and country. Mobs did not rush across town to do good deeds, and in Hackberry’s view, there was no more odious taint on any social or political endeavor than universal approval. To Hackberry, Danny Boy’s alcoholic madness was a respite from a far greater form of delusion.

It was late on a Wednesday night in April when Danny Boy walked out into the desert with an empty duffel bag and an army-surplus entrenching tool, the sky as black as soot, the southern horizon pulsing with electricity that resembled gold wires, the softness of the ground crumbling under his cowboy boots, as though he were treading across the baked shell of an enormous riparian environment that had been layered and beveled and smoothed with a sculptor’s knife. At the base of a mesa, he folded the entrenching tool into the shape of a hoe and knelt down and began digging in the ground, scraping through the remains of fossilized leaves and fish and birds that others said were millions of years old. In the distance, an igneous flash spread silently through the clouds, flaring in great yellow pools, lighting the desert floor and the cactus and mesquite and the greenery that was trying to bloom along a riverbed that never held water except during the monsoon season. Just before the light died, Danny Boy saw six men advancing across the plain toward him, like figures caught inside the chemical mix of a half-developed photograph, their torsos slung with rifles.

He scraped harder in the dirt, trenching a circle around what appeared to be two tapered soft-nosed rocks protruding from the incline below the mesa. Then his e-tool broke through an armadillo’s burrow. He inverted the handle and stuck it down the hole and wedged the earth upward until the burrow split across the top and he could work his hand deep into the hole, up to the elbow, and feel the shapes of the clustered objects that were as pointed and hard as calcified dugs.

The night air was dense with an undefined feral odor, like cougar scat and a sun-bleached carcass and burnt animal hair and water that had gone stagnant in a sandy drainage traced with the crawl lines of reptiles. The wind blew between the hills in the south, and he felt its coolness and the dampness of the rain mist on his face. He saw the leaves on the mesquite ripple like green lace, the mesas and buttes shimmering whitely against the clouds, then disappearing into the darkness again. He smelled the piÑon and juniper and the scent of delicate flowers that bloomed only at night and whose petals dropped off and clung to the rocks at sunrise like translucent pieces of colored rice paper. He stared at the southern horizon but saw no sign of the six men carrying rifles. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and went back to work, scooping out a big hole around the stonelike objects that were welded together as tightly as concrete.

The first shot was a tiny pop, like a wet firecracker exploding. He stared into the fine mist swirling through the hills. Then the lightning flared again, and he saw the armed men stenciled against the horizon and the silhouettes of two other figures who had broken from cover and were running toward the north, toward Danny Boy, toward a place that should have been safe from the criminality and violence that he believed was threading its way out of Mexico into his life.

He lifted the nest of stony egg-shaped artifacts from the earth and slid them into the duffel bag and pulled the cord tight through the brass eyelets at the top. He headed back toward his house, staying close to the bottom of the mesa, avoiding the tracks he had made earlier, which he knew the armed men would eventually see and follow. Then a bolt of lightning exploded on top of the mesa, lighting the floodplain and the willows along the dry streambed and the arroyos and crevices and caves in the hillsides as brightly as the sun.

He plunged down a ravine, holding the duffel bag and e-tool at his sides for balance. He crouched behind a rock, hunching against it, his face turned toward the ground so it would not reflect light. He heard someone running past him in the darkness, someone whose breath was not only labored but desperate and used up and driven by fear rather than a need for oxygen.

When he thought that perhaps his wait was over, that the pursuers of the fleeing man had given up and gone away, allowing him to return to his house with the treasure he had dug out of the desert floor, he heard a sound he knew only too well. It was the pleading lament of someone who had no hope, not unlike that of an animal caught in a steel trap or a new inmate, a fish, just off the bus at Sugar Land Pen, going into his first night of lockdown with four or five mainline cons waiting for him in the shower room.

The pursuers had dragged the second fleeing man from behind a tangle of deadwood and tumbleweed that had wedged in a collapsed corral that dog-food contractors had once used to pen mustangs. The fugitive was barefoot and blood-streaked and terrified, his shirt hanging in rags on the pencil lines that were his ribs, a manacle on one wrist, a brief length of cable swinging loosely from it.

“¿DÓnde estÁ?” a voice said.

“No se.”

“What you mean you don’t know? Tu sabes.”

“No, hombre. No se nada.”

“Para dÓnde se fue?”

“He didn’t tell me where he went.”

“¿Es la verdÁd?”

“Claro que si.”

“You don’t know if you speak Spanish or English, you’ve sold out to so many people. You are a very bad policeman.”

“No, seÑor.”

“EstÁs mintiendo, chico. Pobrecito.”

Tengo familia, seÑor. Por favor. Soy un obrador, como usted. I’m just like you, a worker. I got to take care of my family. Hear me, man. I know people who can make you rich.”

For the next fifteen minutes, Danny Boy Lorca tried to shut out the sounds that came from the mouth of the man who wore the manacle and length of severed cable on one wrist. He tried to shrink himself inside his own skin, to squeeze all light and sensation and awareness from his mind, to become a black dot that could drift away on the wind and re-form later as a shadow that would eventually become flesh and blood again. Maybe one day he would forget the fear that caused him to stop being who he was; maybe he would meet the man he chose not to help and be forgiven by him and hence become capable of forgiving himself. When all those things happened, he might even forget what his fellow human beings were capable of doing.

When the screams of the tormented man finally softened and died and were swallowed by the wind, Danny Boy raised his head above a rock and gazed down the incline where the tangle of tumbleweed and deadwood partially obscured the handiwork of the armed men. The wind was laced with grit and rain that looked like splinters of glass. When lightning rippled across the sky, Danny Boy saw the armed men in detail.

Five of them could have been pulled at random from any jail across the border. But it was the leader who made a cold vapor wrap itself around Danny Boy’s heart. He was taller than the others and stood out for many reasons; in fact, the incongruities in his appearance only added to the darkness o...


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My Review

 From Wikipedia: The Feast of Fools, known also as the festum fatuorum, festum stultorum, festum hypodiaconorum, or fête des fous, are the varying names given to popular medieval festivals regularly celebrated by the clergy and laity from the fifth century until the sixteenth century in several countries of Europe, principally France, but also Spain, Germany, Poland, England, and Scotland.  The central idea seems always to have been a brief social revolution, in which power, dignity and impunity is briefly conferred on those in a subordinate position. In the majority view, this makes the medieval festival a successor to the Roman Saturnalia.

Fools, mostly evil filled, flawed ones, populate this latest novel from James Lee Burke.  And there is plenty of violence in this novel filled with violent and damaged people.  The sociopath Preacher Jack Collins, probably Burke's most evil character ever, returns from the previous Hack Holland novel, Rain Gods.  James Lee Burke's writing is brilliant as usual...no surprises there.  If you look past the violence you can see his thoughts and views on politics and religion woven into the story.

Preacher Jack Collins is much more fleshed out in this appearance.  Compared to some of the other violent people in this novel he doesn't seem quite as bad as he did in Rain Gods.  He ponders upon why he has allowed Hack to live when he could have easily killed him so many times.  He realizes Hack is the missing father figure in his life.  Though Collins seems to appear and disappear like a spirit at times he is much more human now to the reader.

The character of Anton Ling, a woman of Chinese descent, who aids Mexicans illegally crossing the border is a truly fascinating character.  She reminds Hack of his deceased wife and is haunted by her much to the chagrin of his deputy Pam.  Ms. Ling has a past filled with misdeeds yet manages to project an image of holiness to the evil men who inhabit this novel.  She is just another of the many damaged souls who grace the pages of this beautifully written novel.

Though I don't think this novel surpasses the excellent Rain Gods, this is an engrossing and fascinating read from an amazing author.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent review.
    James lee Burke is my all time favorite author and I have most of his books in signed editions.
    I enjoyed your review and can't wait to read the book.
    Mike

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  2. Again, a masterpiece. Mr. Burke's writing is like poetry. I am grateful for each and every one of his books. My firefighter son and I have shared them all and spent many hours talking fondly of the stories, the writing, the characters. Thank you

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  3. I can (very) infrequently find an author that can momentarilly hold my attention as well as JLB, but its rare, and I really don't remember the last time. Robert Crais, Michael Connelly can create superb tension, but JLB is, in my book, the master at combining depth and tension, at the right moment, with the pitch of the story.

    I have a thing for Joe Lansdale (especially the Hap & Leonard series), but while he can have suspenseful directions and moments, Joe is able to make 'scary' situations flat-out funny, in the turn of a single word.

    If ANYONE thinks they know an equal, or even someone who is similar to James Lee Burke, please post it here! If I could find two folks that held my interest like JLB, I would have enough writers on my schedule to keep me busy most of the time.

    BTW, Charles Willeford is another good Florida style mystery writer, but getting hard to find.

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  4. What a great blog! You can find this book, along with a host of other recent best sellers, at PremierAudiobooks.com!

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