Wayfaring Stranger

By James Lee Burke

Simon & Schuster. 434 pp. $27.99

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Reviewed by Deen Kogan

With Wayfaring Stranger, James Lee Burke makes another substantial and remarkable contribution to American literature.

This is a complex novel that melds history with contemporary situations. The primary setting is Texas, Depression to post-World War II, with forays into Europe, California, Las Vegas, and Mexico. From the first page, the richly drawn characters and memorable descriptive prose convey an underlying sadness and foreboding.

This is the 33d novel (plus short stories, essays, op-eds, and numerous interviews of interest) in a long career. Burke's honors include a National Endowment of the Arts grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Dashiell Hammett Award for Literary excellence, and the Grand Master Award and two Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America for best crime novel of the year.

Though he may be best known for the Dave Robicheaux series, which began in 1987 with Neon Rain, Burke also created a series featuring hard-drinking lawman Hackberry Holland, who came to life in 1976 in Lay Down My Sword and Shield.

With Wayfaring Stranger, Burke returns to the Holland family and introduces Weldon Holland, Hackberry's grandson.

This sweeping novel begins in the Depression in 1934, when Weldon, 16 and living with his hardscrabble grandfather and clinically depressed mother, has a chance encounter with the notorious outlaws and somehow folk heroes Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who have camped on his grandfather's property after a robbery. The Bonnie and Clyde episode and its impact on Weldon is a recurring theme throughout the book.

Ten years later, as a second lieutenant in the Army, Weldon is engulfed by the World War II Battle of the Bulge. After a German attack, he and his sergeant, Hershel Pine, a country boy from Louisiana, are the only ones from their company still alive. As they attempt to reach the American lines, they rescue an almost-dead woman from a deserted concentration camp. Rosita Lowenstein, Spanish by birth and Jewish with communist connections, is primarily responsible for their survival, but they are separated after reaching safety.

Weldon will later search for Rosita, find her in Paris, marry her, and take her home, where the specter of anti-Semitism is rampant. Hershel weds the love of his life, Linda Gail, Marilyn Monroe's double, and the couples get on with their lives, which includes a battle against Big Oil after Hershel develops a pipe-welding process and goes into partnership with Weldon.

The characters in Wayfaring Stranger are completely realized. From the beginning, Weldon seems older than his years as he speaks with the author's voice. The other characters - from Grandfather Holland to movie director Jerry Fallon, to corrupt detective Hubert Timmons Slakely to privileged oilman Roy Wisehart and his antiseptic wife - are examples of the best and worst of humankind. The title Wayfaring Stranger has multiple meanings, but it is Roy Wisehart who calls himself by that name.

Few contemporary writers handle language the way Burke does. His prose is a joy to read, as in his description of work in the oil fields:

In reality, the rules on a pipeline or an oil rig are draconian and simple and cultural in nature rather than legalistic: If you show up late, you're fired; if you show up drunk, you're fired; if you sass the crew boss, you're fired; if you screw up a weld, you're fired; if you're fried or wired or hungover and tired, you're fired. We didn't have to let one man go.

His description of the fear a sniper causes in soldiers is chilling:

A single sniper could influence the behavior of hundreds or even thousands of troops, whether he was close by or not. We didn't salute in combat zones or silhouette on a hill or wear good-luck pieces or watches or rings that reflected light. We believed in the three-on-a-match warning passed down from the Great War. (The first and second man who lit his cigarette off the same match would probably be all right; by the time the third man lit up, the crosshairs of a scoped rifle would be on his face.) An effective sniper did not simply command territory; he lived in your mind like a parasite, sapping your energies, eating away at your nerve endings.

Other observations are as telling. Burke postulates that, regrettably, good and evil exist side by side. However, with all its negativity and sadness, there is a reaffirmation of the human spirit in Wayfaring Stranger. Weldon Holland is a good man, and so is James Lee Burke. His body of work should be required reading for the American public.