Somewhere along the way James Lee Burke changed. That's a funny thing to say about someone who's been as consistent as Burke's been over the course of 35 novels, two collections of short stories and nearly three decades on The New York Times' bestseller list. But I think the longtime Lolo resident would be the first to admit his last three books, a trilogy that concludes with the Aug. 30 release of The Jealous Kind, stand out with a different level of unabashed pride, urgency and sense of grandeur than the rest of his considerable body of work.
The shift started with The Wayfaring Stranger in 2014, an episodic novel about a changing America, set in Texas in 1956. Burke called it at the time "the most biographical book I've done." He continued with last year's House of the Rising Sun, which followed Hackberry Holland, an early 20th century Texas Ranger and one of the burliest branches on a family tree familiar to Burke's fans.
Both books included the usual Burke components—flawed but noble men battling unspeakable evil, sprawling webs of deceit, often outlandish confrontations and, of course, Burke's singular ability to describe a Southern setting right down to the last bead of sweat—but they operated in a different arena. Dave Robicheaux, the beloved detective in 20 of Burke's novels, always backed his way into traditional crime fiction, the everyman in a time-honored tale of black and white. These last two novels were much more sepia-toned.
Burke completes the transition with The Jealous Kind. Like Wayfaring Stranger, it takes place in Texas during America's "Golden Age." This time it's 1952, in Houston, and instead of looking at the period through the gauzy lens of souped-up cars, classic music on the jukebox and post-World War II courage, Burke is determined to set the record straight. There's a class war and racism and the boys are blindly lining up to fight in Korea. Fear is prevalent.
His narrator is Aaron Holland Broussard, a 17-year-old who's part of that hallowed Holland family tree and eager to come of age during the summer before his senior year of high school. Aaron's an aspiring writer who, like Burke, plays a Gibson in his spare time. (Check YouTube for clips of the author jamming with the Lil' Smokies.) Most notably, Aaron's also about the same age that Burke, now on the cusp of 80, would've been in '52.
It doesn't take Dave Robicheaux to connect the dots on what this trilogy—and The Jealous Kind, in particular—might mean to Burke. It's as if he's pleading with the reader to understand the importance of the era and how it's shaped everything since.
"I was raised to believe that good triumphed over evil, that justice ultimately prevailed, and that God was on our side," Aaron muses at one point, before mentioning the Marshall Plan by name. "... I still believe in those precepts, but as we grow old and leave behind the pink clouds of our youth, we learn that truth often exists in degree rather than absolutes."
In The Jealous Kind, that "truth" is hidden by a thicket of mob activity, turf wars and high school shenanigans. It's an admittedly odd mix, made all the more awkward by Aaron falling madly for the most gorgeous girl in all of South Texas. (Thanks to our pubescent narrator, I counted almost a dozen different references to a penis in the first 100 pages, including "swizzle stick" and "twanger," usually in reference to an ill-timed erection.) Luckily, Aaron is forced to mature as the action ratchets up around him, those stilted love scenes quickly fade and matters more attuned to Burke's strengths prevail. His protagonist may be preternaturally adept at navigating organized crime, but he at least assumes the sort of presence needed to deliver this book's intended message.
"People don't change," one character explains to Aaron. "They grow into what they've always been. They just stop pretending, that's all."
I get the impression with The Jealous Kind, Burke's done pretending.
James Lee Burke reads from The Jealous Kind Tue., Aug. 30, at Fact & Fiction. 7 PM.