It is always exciting when there is a new James lee Burke novel, and Wayfaring Stranger lived up to my expectations. Gloriously lyrical, beautifully harsh and stunningly redemptive, Burke’s writing is astounding, the plots always fascinating, the characters magnificently human, flawed and honourable. The evocation of variously steamy, lush Louisiana and dry, stark Texas is always a joy – especially, in a cold Dunedin winter, with ice on the ground!
This book starts in 1934 with Weldon Holland (who I think may turn out to be the father of Hackberry Holland who Burke has already written about) encountering the notorious Bonnie and Clyde. Weldon’s education in the evils that men – and women – are capable of continues as we move to the battlefields of World War II where Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland saves his sergeant, Hershel Pine, from death by suffocation when he is buried alive in his foxhole under the treads of a Waffen SS Tiger tank. Weldon and Hershel survive the executions of the wounded by the SS and escape on a freight train deep into Nazi Germany. There, they stumble into an extermination camp deserted by the SS, and discover among the stacked bodies a young woman named Rosita Lowenstein. Weldon goes all the way to the Elbe River in the war’s brutal climax, but afterwards he is determined to find Rosita – eventually tracking her down in Paris, where they get married. But Hershel has also found gold in the dross of conflict, claiming to have discovered the secret to the Tiger tank’s indestructibility, its unique welding process – and on their return to the States, it looks as if the two friends have not merely survived; they’re going to be rich. But as the two form a pipeline corporation and enter the oil business, they are about to encounter – amidst the super-rich of Huston – levels of greed and cruelty they thought they had left far behind in the blood and horror of war.
I think James Lee Burke is one of the writers I’d like to have at my “who would you have at” dinner party, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gita Sereny, Robertson Davies…
Burke always seems to be recounting old tales but also actually creating the myths that swirl about his iconic landscapes, beautiful and awe-inspiring, and his characters which struggle with the vicissitudes thrown at them by uncaring fates, their responses showing their underlying shining or dark true natures. It all very Greek myth really, and packs a similar emotional punch.