Book review: Wayfaring Stranger

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Deep in the heart of Texas, here’s a wildly over-the-top adventure, writes Steve Harrigan

Wayfaring Stranger

By James Lee Burke

Orion, 448pp, £19.99

James Lee Burke’s enormous reputation is mostly based on the 20 novels in his Dave Robicheaux mystery series, which is set in Louisiana. But Burke was actually born in Texas, and he has been slowly working his way through the history of the fictional Holland clan, which began with Two for Texas, set at the time of the Alamo, and continues here with this big, broad, engagingly overstuffed novel set with rousing confidence in midcentury Texas. Like much of Burke’s fiction, it’s saturated with the romance of the past while mournfully attuned to the unholy menace of the present.

It begins in the 1930s, when 16-year-old Weldon and his grandfather encounter Bonnie and Clyde hiding out on their property. Weldon’s is entranced with the glamorous, beret-wearing Bonnie, but after a tense confrontation that ends with one of the gang members spitting on his grandfather, the boy fires a round from a .44 into their fleeing car.

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This opening sequence is extraordinarily taut and vivid, as are subsequent chapters in which Weldon, serving as an infantry lieutenant in the Battle of the Bulge, stumbles into the horror of a Nazi death camp where the only person left alive is Rosita, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War. Though she’s barely breathing, she’s beautiful and passionate. She reminds him, he tells her later, “of someone I met when I was 16. Her name was Bonnie Parker.”

To make sure we don’t miss how hard Weldon and Rosita fall for each other, Weldon tells us that Rosita’s thighs are “like long golden carp” and that making love with her was “like entering a Petrarchan sonnet.” She likes him too. “You fill me with light when you’re inside me,” she informs him.

The trouble begins when Weldon and his former sergeant Hershel Pine settle in Houston and build a pipeline company together, using the same innovative welding process that held together the German Tiger tanks that overran their position in the Ardennes.

Hershel comes in for his share of compliments too – not only does he have a genius for pipeline construction, he possesses “the chivalric virtues of an Arthurian knight”. Unfortunately this attribute is under-appreciated by his wife, Linda Gail, a pretty, gaptoothed Bogalusa girl with ungovernable worldly ambitions.

Weldon and Rosita and Hershel and Linda Gail are beset by masses of business rivals, sadistic detectives, smarmy Hollywood talent scouts and anti-Communist witch hunters.

It’s unclear why the newly created Dixie Belle Pipeline Company represents such a disturbance to their blackhearted universe. At first you think these people just want to go into business with Weldon and Hershel; then you think they want to put them out of business; then you begin to understand their shadowy agenda involves nothing less than “to rob the innocent of their faith in humanity and to destroy the light and happiness that all of us seek.”

Weldon and company are stalked, blackmailed, betrayed, beaten, violated, arrested, pursued and seduced. Linda Gail is lured to Hollywood, intent on becoming a movie star. And she enters into a self-destructive affair with oil billionaire Roy Wiseheart. (Infidelity is no surprise to her cynical director, who assures her that on a spring night in “Babylon-by-the-Sea,” you can “hear the hymens snapping like crickets.”)

For Weldon and Rosita, the peril is more immediate. Suspected of being a Communist, Rosita is packed off to a mental asylum in Wichita Falls. It’s up to Weldon to rescue her. Fanciful? Of course. But even though this novel contains “There may be thighs like long golden carp” and “hymens snapping like crickets”, it is also full of prose as strong and precise as Hershel Pine’s pipeline welds – a kindly spruced-up drunk with slicked-back hair “like paint poured on a rock,” the burly roughneck on a doodlebug barge whose tattoo looks like “the food-dye lettering on the rind of a smoke-cured ham.”

And then there’s Burke’s sense of place, which is so richly interwoven with his sense of history. In some ways, Wayfaring Stranger feels almost too big for a novel as big as Texas, too portentous, too invested in its own mythic significance. But in other crucial ways, it feels exactly the right size.

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