Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster, 2009. 448 pages.
Readers of this column know that some authors turn up here regular as church bells, reviewed with each new book. Ann Tyler, Carol Goodman, Pat Conroy: these and a few others have appeared here more than once in the 10-year life of this column, partly because the reviewer loves their work, partly because their work touches in some particular way on the lives and sensibilities of the readers of The Smoky Mountain News.
No author, however, has received more reviews than James Lee Burke. Best-known for his novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, a tormented Vietnam vet, member in good standing in Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the best fictional investigators of the last 50 years, Burke has written several more novels about a Western attorney, Billy Bob Holland, as well as some general works of fiction early in his career.
Reasons for this attention to Burke abound. His major characters, especially Dave Robicheaux, seem to fit the profile of many Smoky Mountain News readers: slightly left of center, concerned about the environment, interested in seeing justice administered and the innocent protected. Though Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland, and other protagonists more than occasionally trespass on the grounds of mawkish sentimentality, Burke always manages to steer them away without embarrassment, usually through their own ironic sense of themselves and their fellow man.
Burke’s readers also like his books, of course, because the man is a damn fine storyteller.
In Rain Gods (Simon and Schuster, 2009, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-2824-4), Burke gives us a new protagonist, Hackberry Holland, an aging Texas sheriff faced with a veritable platoon of hit men and fanatics bent on running prostitutes and drugs across the Mexican border. Here in this 400-hundred-plus page novel are a host of grand characters fighting for the good: Pete Flores, an Iraq vet who fights his demons along with his girlfriend, country singer Vikki Gaddis; Deputy Sheriff Pam Tibbs, cool and competent and in love with the older Holland; and Nick Dolan, one of the quirkier heroes in recent literature, a small-time gangster who eventually, with the help of his wife Esther, cowboys up and opposes the criminals trying to run an extortion on him.
The best-drawn character of these criminals is Preacher Jack Collins, a killer-for-hire who has his own strange personal code of honor; his explanations of that code, and the failure of his partners in crime to understand it, provides some of the funnier moments in Rain Gods. Preacher, for example, comes to believe that Esther Dolan, who is of Jewish descent, is related to the Biblical Esther and that she will reveal not only her queenly qualities to him, but will reveal his own self and reason for being as well.
Burke’s many gifts as a writer are on display here. Few novelists writing today can reproduce the accuracy of his dialogue or his finely-done descriptions of place. In Rain Gods, Burke frequently gives us a picture of desert and decay, with this physical backdrop reflecting the moral deformity of so many of the characters.
“The motel was a leftover from the 1950s, a utilitarian structure checker boarded with huge red and beige plastic squares, the metal-railed upstairs walkways not unlike those in penitentiaries, all of it located in a neighborhood of warehouses and bankrupt businesses and joyless bars that could afford no more than a single neon sign over the door.”
Rain Gods does contain some of the flaws apparent in Burke’s other books. Despite his creation of the Dolans as good guys here — the scene where Nick Dolan stands up to Sholokoff, the Russian gangster behind the murders, is one of the most entertaining moments in the book — Burke tends to paint good and evil with a broad brush. In Preacher Burke does offer us a “bad guy” who is complex, who does maneuver through moral judgments, who is a protean character of sorts, but generally the men who commit evil in Burke’s books are not complex, tormented characters.
Burke also traffics in reverse stereotypes. All of the women in the book — Vikki Gaddis shoots a gangster in the feet; Pam Tibbs blows away several malefactors; Esther Dolan beats a gangster about the head with a pot and chases him from her house — are undaunted by evil, stronger than the men around them, a position typical of other works by Burke. And though much of his novel has to do with smuggling drugs and prostitutes across the border, no Mexicans other than a few shooters are involved in this trade. The real evil-doers, as in nearly all of Burke’s other novels, are always white and male. As a result, though minor Mexican figures flit through the story, Burke’s tale of modern-day Texas feels weirdly out of sync with the real racial mix that constitutes not only Texas, but nearly every state in the nation.
These complaints may also be made about the novels of Pat Conroy. In both cases, the same prejudices may be seen at work. Both men are magnificent writers in nearly every sense, yet when we look back at writers of 50 years ago — Faulkner, Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet — we must wonder whether our contemporary writers don’t, in fact, want to be liked too much.