‘Feast Day’ by James Lee Burke is superbly written
Feast Day of Fools” (Simon & Schuster), by James Lee Burke
Thursday, September 29, 2011
James Lee Burke’s 30 superbly written mysteries and Westerns have always been allegorical, illuminating the grandest of themes.
Over the years, he has written about racism, neocolonialism, the rape of the environment, the hijacking of Christianity by hateful bigots and the futility of war. He has written about manipulative political and business figures, and about the quest for individual and national redemption.
He has also explored the nature of evil. Its causes, he believes, aren’t sociological, but rather, as he wrote in 2005’s “Crusaders Cross,” evil men who “make a conscious choice to erase God’s thumbprint from their souls.”
And in all of Burke’s works, the past is never past. It inhabits the landscape, haunting both individuals and the soul of the nation.
In “Feast Day of Fools,” Burke pulls all of his themes together in a master work that comprises his unified theory of America at the beginning of the 21st century. It’s not a pretty picture.
The title refers to a medieval custom in which the laity of the Roman Catholic Church were allowed to behave as badly as they wanted for a few days before receiving collective absolution. Clearly, Burke believes our own “feast day” has been going on a lot longer than that, with no end or absolution in sight.
He sets his story in the great desert of the Tex-Mex border, but he asks readers to see it as it has existed through the ages, from its origin as a shallow inland sea teeming with prehistoric reptilian monsters to the present, in which xenophobic Anglos take potshots at desperately poor Mexicans who cross the border in search of a better life.
The hero of the story is Hackberry Holland, who was introduced by Burke in a short story about the Korean War and then in 1971’s “Lay Down My Sword and Shield.” Burke brought Holland back as the aged sheriff of a small Texas town in 2009’s “Rain Gods.” Now, “Feast Day of Fools” finds the 70-something Holland still wearing a badge, a man haunted by his youth and by the things that he did and were done to him in that long-ago Asian war.
As the story opens, a young engineer who helped design the Predator drone is on the run in the Texas desert. He is being hunted for the secrets he carries in his head. The FBI wants him. So does the greedy millionaire son of a U.S. senator. And a former mercenary named Krill, whose children were gunned down by an American gunship during a secret war in Central America. And Russian mobsters. And Mexican drug dealers. And Preacher Jack Collins, the homicidal maniac introduced in “Rain Gods.” Some of them hope to profit by selling the young man to al-Qaida.
The hunters are willing, and most of them downright eager, to kill and torture to get what they want. Soon, the bodies start piling up in Holland’s rural county.
As Burke’s complex plot unfolds, the author explores the tortured psyches of both the villains and Holland himself, revealing some surprising connections.
The characters — including Preacher Jack, Holland and his deputy and love interest Pam Tibbs — are superbly drawn. The portrait of Preacher Jack, a specter who gleefully mows down people with his Thompson submachine gun with the certainty that God is on his side, is particularly chilling.
And as always in a Burke novel, the landscape is vividly described in passages so poetic they could be broken into lines of verse.
Bruce DeSilva is the author of “Rogue Island,” which won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award and the Mystery Readers International’s Macavity Award for best first novel.