Simon & Shuster, $27.99, 434 pages, ISBN 978-1-4767-1079-2
It’s hard, in this time of generally gracious living, to imagine the privation, fear and destitution that characterized the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the opening chapters of Wayfaring Stranger, by James Lee Burke manages to do it in a near-perfect manner that sets the stage for the rest of the novel in an orderly and logical progression of events. Growing up on his grandfather’s ranch in east Texas, sixteen year-old Weldon Avery Holland and his grandfather, a retired tough-as-nails Texas Ranger named Hack, have a chance encounter with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who’ve just held up a bank. As the bandits are leaving, Weldon shoots at their stolen car, putting a bullet hole through the back of it. That random event will influence him throughout the rest of his novel, set in the heart of the east-Texas-west-Louisiana oil patch. That’s where Weldon, his wife Rosita Lowenstein—the woman he rescued from a World War Two Nazi death camp—and his business partner Herschel Pine—who survived the Battle of the Bulge with Weldon—are fighting to survive the evil operators of big oil, with big money and big ambition, who are using all their power and resources to buy the small, but successful and rapidly growing, Dixie Belle Pipeline Company . . . or drive it into bankruptcy.
Wayfaring Stranger is a novel that defies genre. It’s a little bit crime fiction, a bit family saga and a bit literary in nature with a large, diverse cast of interesting characters. Call it what you will, it’s Burke at his best, and one that his legions of fans will revel in. It’s a departure from his usual work that sparkles with all the lyrical prose and descriptive phrases we’ve come to expect from this master of American Literature, and a whole new direction that I, personally, (an avid reader of every new James Lee Burke offering since The Lost, Get Back Boogie,) think is one of his best ever!