Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: "Wayfaring Stranger" by James Lee Burke

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite authors of all-time. Over the last 25 years or so, I've read everything he has written, and really marveled at his ability to tell stories. His writing style is one of the most poetic and evocative I've ever seen; no one can set a scene or describe a person quite like Burke.

With Wayfaring Stranger, Burke departs from the usual characters he's written about lately, most notably Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux, to tell the story of Weldon Holland. When we first meet Weldon in the 1930s, he is fatherless, being raised by his curmudgeonly grandfather. At 16, he has several chance encounters with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, as they are hiding out following one of their many bank robberies. Weldon is entranced by the beautiful Bonnie, yet he knows intuitively that the group are criminals, and their last encounter leads to Weldon firing a gun at their car as it drives away. This experience both shapes his view of criminals and sets up an interesting standard of women in his mind.

Years later, Weldon finds himself in the army during World War II, and is one of a handful of survivors of the Battle of the Bulge. He and a fellow soldier, Hershel Pine, whose life Weldon saves, come upon an abandoned concentration camp, where they wind up saving the life of Rosita Lowenstein, who had been captured when her Communist father and her family were arrested. Weldon is immediately besotted with Rosita, who is a firebrand more interested in changing the world than settling down, yet Weldon pursues her again once the two are separated.

Returning to Texas, Hershel makes good on his gratitude toward Weldon by forging a partnership in the fledgling oil industry. Hershel has envisioned using German technology to weld oil pipeline, which makes it strong so it will not split. Yet as they begin to achieve immense success, they are dogged by corrupt businessmen and thieves who want to seize their business, and will stop at nothing—including using information about their wives—to destroy them. But their strong sense of right and wrong keeps them fighting, with positive and negative results.

Burke's writing ability is on fine display in this book, and many times I was struck by his use of imagery and his descriptions of characters, which made them tremendously vivid. Yet while many of the reviews I've read of this book claim that Wayfaring Stranger is a tremendous departure for Burke, I think it is only in that it's about different characters than his other books. I felt that in many ways, Weldon was very similar to Dave Robicheaux, in his steadfast need to right wrongs—even if it means doing wrong in the process—his long-suffering nature, and his fierce loyalty to those he cares about. And many of the villains that Weldon and Hershel encounter seem familiar as well.

I enjoyed this book, but not as much as many of Burke's others, yet many of the reviews I've seen say this may be his finest book to date. Whether you agree with me or not, if you're a fan of excellent storytelling, with a particular emphasis on the seamier side of human nature, I'd encourage you to pick up one of James Lee Burke's books, and hopefully you'll become as much an admirer of his as I am.

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