Monday, March 13, 2017
Review of "Wayfaring Stranger" by James Lee Burke
This standalone novel is a fine additon to James Lee Burke's impressive ouevre.
At the age of 16 Weldon Holland meets the infamous bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow when their gang hides out on the outskirts of his grandfather's Texas ranch. Weldon and his grandfather - former Texas Ranger Hackberry Holland - are lucky to come out of the encounter alive, and Weldon shoots a bullet into the bandits' 1932 Chevy as the thieves drive off.
Jump ahead to 1944 and Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland's army unit is massacred by the German army during the Battle of the Bulge. Weldon survives and manages to dig his Sergeant, Hershel Pine, out of a crushed foxhole. The two men, on the run from the enemy, come across an abandoned Nazi death camp where they rescue a young woman, Rosita Lowenstein, from a pile of corpses. After additional harrowing experiences Weldon, Hershel, and Rosita are rescued by American troops.
In time Weldon marries Rosita, a Spanish Jew whose family were communists. Weldon also goes into business wtih Hershel, who's developed a revolutionary way to weld pipes for the oil industry. Weldon and Hershel form the Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, which becomes enormously successful and lucrative..... and attracts the attention of oil barons who want its technology. To this end Roy Wiseheart, the son of a billionaire Texas oil tycoon, proposes a joint venture with Dixie Belle.....but is roundly rejected. Wiseheart - a war hero who won a flying ace under questionable circumstances - tries to convince Weldon to change his mind, to no avail.
Roy Wiseheart is a complicated character: he's handsome, charming, avaricious, and repeatedly unfaithful to his (admittedly horrible) wife.....but harbors wisps of conscience and heart. Roy's father though, is a take-no-prisoners businessman who's a vicious anti-communist and anti-semite. Thus the senior Wiseheart makes it his business to destroy the two couples associated with Dixe Belle: Weldon and Rosita; and Hershel and his wife Linda Gail.
To achieve this goal the elder Wiseheart hires a corrupt Houston detective who employs every trick in the book to harass the Hollands and Pines: he engineers a traffic stop for Rosita that results in an arrest - and ultimately escalates to an intolerable situation; he sends Weldon painful films of Rosita in a Nazi concentration camp; he distributes compromising photos of Linda Gail after she becomes a Hollywood starlet; he steals into the bedroom of Weldon's grandfather and tries to humiliate him....but the tough old coot pulls a gun and scares the crap out of the rotten cop (ha ha ha).
Weldon and Hershel's families seem helpless in the face of Wiseheart's power and influence, but Weldon is a rugged, crafty fellow. Moreover, he's assisted by 'visions' of the old Chevy that once belonged to Bonnie and Clyde.
This book has elements common to many of Burke's novels: men on the side of law and justice (Weldon and his grandfather); a devoted married couple (Weldon and Rosita); an evil wealthy family (some of the Wisehearts); a grasping female (Linda Gail); and supernatural elements (the Chevy). As always, Burke's writing is excellent, with evocative descriptions of scenery (ranging from Texas, to the Ardennes, to Louisiana, to the Rocky Mountains) and people. In truth, however, some of the book's characters are well-rounded and complex while others are two-dimentional 'types' (a white supremacist woman; a Hollywood lothario, a grasping insurance company executive; a crooked cop, etc.).
I'd love to see James Lee Burke write a book that goes in a different direction but - whether he does or not - I'll keep reading his excellent stories. This book would appeal to a wide variety of readers and I highly recommend it.