Heartwood by James Lee Burke
Billy Bob Holland is a former Texas Ranger turned lawyer. During his gun-slinging days on the border, he killed many men, most of them Mexican drug mules transporting narcotics into Texas. It was on one of those raids that he accidentally shot and killed his partner and best friend, LQ Navarro, whose witty ghost keeps haunting Billy Bob, offering advice in times of turmoil. Billy Bob speaks to him. Yes, Billy Bob is a man with issues.
Life in Deaf Smith, Texas is usually slow, as is normal for such a small town. But every now and then trouble pops up and when it does, it’s usually a douzy. For some reason Billy Bob is always stuck in the middle of it. It seems as if old habits die hard for our favourite Ranger. This time the problem comes alongside Wilbur Pickett, a hapless rodeo riding hero who is always looking for his big financial break. Wilbur’s wife is a blind First Nations mystic with visions of the future. Rebel Voice wonders why these gifts never extend to the lottery.
Wilbur has taken on some work for Earl Dietrich, the local bigwig with a bad reputation. Dietrich is married to Peggy Jean, the local beauty who took Billy Bob’s virginity. No doubt he gave it willingly. The Texas Ranger still carries some residual feelings for her and this complicates matters when he finds himself representing Pickett in a legal battle with Earl Dietrich.
You see, some bearer bonds have gone missing from Dietrich’s home, along with a watch artefact. Wilbur is the unfortunate in the frame for the theft. The sheriff is happy to go after Pickett, if only to appease Dietrich. It’s a case of the rich getting all the justice, a familiar theme in James Lee Burke books. This particular sheriff is also about as corrupt as it’s possible to be, and his deputies are little better. Who would want to slip up in Deaf Smith, Texas? Don’t fret, Billy Bob is on the case.
Into this melee steps Skyler Doolittle (love the name), an ex-con with a strange appearance and demeanour to go with it. Doolittle approaches Holland with a story about how Dietrich stole a family heirloom from him in a poker scam. The watch that Wilbur was accused of stealing? Yep, you’ve guessed it. Doolittle also finds himself on the wrong side of local law enforcement. The sheriff is a busy man.
Temple Carroll is a PI employed by Billy Bob in certain cases, such as that of Wilbur Pickett. She’s a tough, no nonsense former cop who happens to be madly in love with Holland. Jesus, but it’s all happening in Deaf Smith. Billy Bob knows this but is reluctant to follow it up as he has feelings for Temple that he hasn’t quite figured out yet. It doesn’t help that Temple realizes that he still has the horn for Peggy Jean. Billy Bob is in danger of waking up with his testicles on the pillow beside him.
In their investigation into Dietrich, his finances and past, a link is found to a Latino street gang known as the Purple Hearts. Dietrich apparently funds a program to get the young gang-bangers out of the life, but Billy Bob is not so sure that that’s the real reason for the connection. He starts to suspect that Dietrich is using the gang-bangers for illegal purposes, and a poker scam is one of them.
Dietrich’s only son, Jeff, is a bad egg (yes, this review involves a lot of threads, but then it’s that kind of novel, interesting and varied). He’s used to life with a silver spoon stuck up his ass and likes to get his own way. He’s a bully, and a very dangerous and possibly sociopathic personality.
Whilst hanging out with the supposedly reformed gang members, Jeff starts a relationship with the sister of one. As Jeff ‘slums’ it, he faces being disowned by his father who is a consummate snob. Jeff’s reaction? He marries the beautiful Latina. It is news not well received by his ole pater. It doesn’t help Billy Bob either, as the couple move into a trailer (caravan/mobile home in The Celtic Isles) at the back of the house of Lucas, Billy Bob’s thoroughly decent son. They bring danger and grief and Holland is not pleased.
As the legal investigation into Wilbur’s alleged crime progresses, so too does the level of danger to Pickett and Doolittle increase. Dietrich seems determined to destroy both men and their loved ones, using the sheriff, the gang bangers and his own paid thugs. Dietrich’s wife, meanwhile, just wants a second round of sexual frolics with Holland. Temple Carroll’s temper builds.
Heartwood is a great story. Rebel Voice has been critical of this series in the past, but rarely. This episode is not one to whine about as it’s strong throughout. As this review may have demonstrated, there are many threads running concurrent. But Burke has a sublime skill in weaving a tapestry of entertainment that will wrap you in its beauty. And it is beautiful. James Lee Burke has an almost unsurpassed talent for depicting the people and countryside of the places with which he, personally, is familiar with.
When the reader picks up a Burke book such as Heartwood, they are transported to Texas; they are placed in the company of the residents; they become intimately acquainted with the trials and tribulations of ordinary and not-so-ordinary folk. Whether it be a working stiff or a hardened criminal, the reader gets to know them all. The character list for this book is substantial, but it never overwhelms. That takes much skill and is a sign of just how good Burke is. As Rebel Voice has stated before in reviews, if there is any justice in this world, and there’s precocious little of it to be found in the Deaf Smith, Texas legal system, then Burke should be the number one contender for a Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s that good (Bob Dylan can suck Rebel Voice‘s Irish balls… or should that be Rebel Vice…?).
Peggy Jean isn’t all bad. There is still much of the poor, local girl remaining as she demonstrates in her kind treatment of Pete, the young Mexican boy that Billy Bob has taken under his wing. She seems to want out from her marriage, but is stuck. What to do? Perhaps circumstance will throw her a bone, even if Billy Bob won’t.
Burke’s depiction of Texas is, as previously stated, vivid. But it’s also slightly depressing. There seems to be a lot of poverty and serious hardship, in the area. The good people are struggling to make it through the day, but face into their lives in a stoic fashion. This martyr depiction is not unique to Burke. Cormac McCarthy also portrays the region in the same way. Rebel Voice wonders why the lighter side of life is not more often shown, as Texans must try to enjoy their existence just like the rest of us, even if conditions might be slightly harsher in their climate.
When reading such Americano literature, the word that springs to mind is bleak. If any of you have ever read Carson McCullers’ ‘The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter’ then you will understand what this site means by that word in this context. This is not in any way a criticism, as each of those authors writes beautifully. Their stories are haunting and rightly regarded as classics. But is the lonely portrayal of such subject matters an insight into the true heart of the United States of America, especially both rural and small town? Can it be said that the USA contains, within it’s European descendants at least, a deep-seated melancholy? Social psychologists, perhaps, would be better placed to answer such a question, but this site does wonder if sadness can be inherited. If so, then perhaps it’s the heartache of having left their homelands that has been passed down from European emigres, and subsequently imbued in their descendants. It would certainly explain the many books and movies that highlight this quality. Think of popular films such as The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, or Hondo, or The Searchers, or The Road, or Gone With The Wind. All of these features are, at their heart, full of loneliness. Rebel Voice wonders if it is this innate emotion that is behind much of the unfortunate imperialism that the US has engaged in. Is there an integral social and national anger in that land, which provokes an aggressive reaction across the globe. Is the US pursuit of global domination really just the outward manifestation of the male child of America who pines for his parents and his home? Heavy insight or load of shit?
Meanwhile, back in Deaf Smith, Texas, Billy Bob is up to his neck in it as his son is in danger of getting caught in the crossfire. It doesn’t help when Jeff Dietrich dumps his Latina lover (and former wife as his dad got the marriage annulled), and Lucas starts doing the horizontal tango with her. It must be the heat that has their loins all stirred up. Jeff starts to spiral out of control as he delves into the world of drug dealing and runs up against some Jamaican bad asses.
Skyler Doolittle has to go on the run where he becomes a bigger problem for everyone, Wilbur refuses to back down and his wife ends up killing an assassin and subsequently facing murder charges, and Earl Dietrich’s financial situation is not what it seems and he becomes more and more desperate. All the while the Purple Hearts continue to do what they do best, engaging in serious anti-social behaviour. The pieces are all in place for a thrilling conclusion to this complex yet beautifully simplistic story.
Rebel Voice has no desire to give too much away here. Needless to say, if you pick up this book, you will not want to put it down until it’s finished and you will fidget until the next instalment.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. Highly recommended as this is Burke at his best.Vivid, quirky, emotional, insightful, observant, lightly amusing and thoroughly gripping, Heartwood is one to display proudly on your bookshelf in the section reserved for those that have been read and enjoyed.
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