James Lee Burke hits a home run with his most recent book, Rain Gods. It’s a big switch from his New Orleans settings to the Texas dust bowl but those lavender skies and red suns are just as evocative.
Sheriff Hackberry (Hack) Holland is a widowed sheriff with a bruised past. He lives alone on a patch of land that he’s made as comfortable as he can to convince himself he’s not really lonely. Nine Asian women are machine-gunned and bulldozed into the dirt behind the church in the small town he’s responsible for. And that makes it personal.
Burke takes us on a multi-faceted yarn where no one does quite what you expect them to, and even the worst villain has a moral code, however twisted.
This is the first book that I’ve ever read cover-to-cover, twice, in the same three day time span. I raced through it the first time because I was so engaged in every page (all 434 of them) that I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. When I finished the book, I picked it back up and read it a second time, savouring every word. And believe me, James Lee Burke is a wordsmith like no other — the second time around, I appreciated Burke’s mastery of language and plot even more.
In Rain Gods, we get a whole cast of new characters to root for. Burke writes from each of their perspectives, shifting gears seamlessly. Among them, Vikki, the folksinger on the run with her damaged husband, Pete, the Iraq war veteran. There’s Nick, the soft, weak childhood victim of bullies who owns bars and escort agencies, and his fearless wife, Esther. There’s Hackberry, the principled sheriff all too aware of, and almost too willing to accept, his own mortality. And Pam, the deputy sheriff who is loyal to Hack and to Hack only.
And then there’s Preacher, a villain as crazy as any ever created and yet one that Burke makes sympathetic. (I loved the fact that he was unpredictable. Every time I thought he was going to zig, he zagged. Brilliant.)
But the moral core of this book is Hack Holland. There aren’t too many authors with the courage to make the main protagonist of a story like this an elderly man (Sheriff Holland fought in Korea in 1950, so you can do the math). But Burke pulls it off.
Pet peeves? Sure, I have a few–no book is perfect. The very last chapter was unsatisfying to me; I thought the ending could have been stronger. And occasionally, in a kind of Jonathan Franzen-channelling, Burke gets a bit long-winded. Take this paragraph about Hack surveying his property, for example:
“From where he sat, he could see both the southern and northern borders of his property, the railed pastures he watered with wheel lines, the machine shed where he parked his tractor and his four-stall barn and his tack room filled with bridles and snaffle bits and saddles and hackamores and head stalls and three-inch-diameter braided rope leads and horsefly spray and worming syringes and hoof clippers and wood rasps, the poplar trees he had planted as windbreaks, his pale, closely clipped lawn that looked like a putting green in the desert, his flower beds that he continuously weeded and mulched and fertilized and watered by hand every morning.”
Beautiful descriptions, but they could have benefitted, I think, from being broken down into more than one sentence.
I see a movie in the future, probably with Clint Eastwood, if Hollywood is smart. I hope it comes out soon; this is a great book that will make a fabulous movie. I’m thinking Johnny Depp for Preacher’s sidekick, Bobby Lee, or maybe even for the role of Preacher himself.
After thirty books, you have to tip your hat to James Lee Burke for inventing a fresh cast of engaging characters in a landscape you can almost smell and touch.
Loved it? You bet I did. I just wish it came out in hardcover because I’m pretty sure I’ll wear this copy out.