Inspiring Older Readers
House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke
Elsewhere on this site I have written about my love of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux sequence of novels and I still think that he’s one of America’s finest living writers in any genre. However, I have to be honest and confess that I found my credibility and patience with Burke’s House of the Rising Sun stretched to the very edge.
I should make it clear that this isn’t part of the Robicheaux series – which might be part of the problem because that is such a perfectly created and constructed world that the rules are well known to anyone reading the books. Here though we are taken into a new world order. Set as the 19th century turns into the 20th and stretching to the first few years following the First World War, Burke introduces us to the Holland family and specifically to Hackberry Holland, an unreconstructed remnant of the Old West, a sometimes Texas Ranger, an alcoholic and a man with a deep sense of what is morally right but also a man who seems to be unable to control his deeply rooted notions of justice meted out through uncontrolled animal retribution.
I think Burke tries to make Holland something of a Greek or even Shakespearean tragic figure – a potentially great and powerful man who cannot control his fatal flaws that are destined to surface in order to destroy him and those close to him. However, this analogy doesn’t really hold because rather than being punished by the Gods Holland simply seems to be dogged by his own stupidity. Despite Burke’s efforts to give him a sort of deep-seated intelligence and respect for education, Holland never seems to learn.
Admittedly the story is high octane and full of gun fights, blood and suffering but it also relies on a series of extraordinary coincidents and events that are best described as unlikely. There is a frankly absurd story of a lost or stolen Grail cup and a sub-plot involving Holland’s son, Ishmael – who is by some distance the weakest character in the book. There is, however, a pretty good baddie at the heart of the novel – Arnold Beckman, an Austrian arms dealer whose moral vacuity makes him evil personified – who seems to be obsessed with killing people in the most convoluted and sadistic ways when a simple gunshot would do the trick. His end is also appropriately baroque.
What really saves this novel from itself is the introduction of three extraordinary women characters who end up being crucial to the way the story unfolds. Probably the best of these is the Machiavellian Maggie Bassett, a great and ageless beauty who is at various points married to Hackberry, the seducer of Ishmael, a former prostitute, lover of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and oddly in league with Arnold Beckman. Yes, it really is that complicated. She is balanced by Hackberry’s sometime live-in lover, the Nordic-looking Ruby Dansen who works for social justice and supports the struggles of the Wobblies and who fights for her son like a she-wolf. Also lurking in the background and coming to the forefront at critical moments is Beatrice DeMolay, brothel-keeper who is allegedly descended from the crusader knight who brought the shroud of Turin back from the Holy Land.
The book is 400 pages long and the plot twists and turns are legion but Burke is never less than a great writer and he keeps you going even when the action verges on the absurd. It’s still a readable book even though it rests on a weak story superstructure and creaks and groans in alarming ways - and that’s a tribute to the author’s vivid use of language and the way his persona threads through the writing.
If you haven’t read any James Lee Burke this might not be the one to start with. Pick up Neon Rain, fall under the spell of the Robicheaux novels and maybe you’ll loop around to this in due course.