New Direction

07.20.14

James Lee Burke Talks About His Fiction, History, and the American Dream

Abandoning the badasses in his usual Louisiana haunts, the Edgar-winning author crafts his first historical novel about oil, movies, and the American Dream.

Like Babe Ruth, late in his career, pointing toward the center field bleachers at Wrigley Field before sending a ball soaring out of the stadium, James Lee Burke has managed, in one swift maneuver, to confirm and enhance his legacy. At the age of 77, the Edgar Award-winning crime novelist has written his best book.

Wayfaring Stranger is unlike Burke’s previous novels, yet it contains enough vintage Burke passages of pyrotechnical prose to light up the page, and remind the reader whose work rests in his hands. The historical novel introduces its protagonist, Weldon Holland, as a child growing up in rural Texas where he has a chance encounter with Bonnie and Clyde. From there we follow him through the combat of World War II, the rescue of a Jewish woman from a death camp, the rise of the commercial oil industry, and the lights, camera, and action of Hollywood nights.

American history has always been in the background of Burke’s crime novels, but Wayfaring Stranger is his first work of historical fiction. The genre change serves Burke’s writing well, and it could not have come at a better time.

Burke has been one of America’s greatest literary stylists for decades, as he imbues even the simplest and most noirish stories with the poetry of myth and the pathos of music. Most of his novels follow the cases and crises of Dave Robicheaux, New Iberia, Louisiana sheriff’s detective, who receives assistance from the ethical but delightfully crude private investigator Clete Purcel.

The Robicheaux series is an excellent meditation on crime, justice, and the nature of evil and redemption, but after 20 novels, it has begun to seem formulaic and predictable. There are only so many cases that a detective—even one as charismatic and complex as Robicheaux—can crack, and only so many conspiracies he can uncover.

Burke’s newest novel is not only his most divergent and ambitious, but as I learned in a conversation with the author, his most personal.

“The peculiarity of this book is that I never saw it coming,” Burke said. “I started what I thought was a short story about some events in my family and things I witnessed growing up, and by the end I realized I had written a novel that went far beyond anything else I’ve ever done.”

“There are large pieces of this book that I don’t even remember writing,” he said before describing his writing process for Wayfaring Stranger as a “blackout.”

An artistic mystery combined with an active memory created Wayfaring Stranger. “I knew everyone in this book,” Burke explains, “and maybe that’s why I had to wait 50 years to write it.”

There is never a dull or outlandish moment in the wide-ranging, history-sweeping plot of Burke’s new novel, but even the most seemingly imaginative and romantic turn comes out of Burke’s family scrapbook. Weldon Holland, struggling to assimilate the horrific imagery of pure evil as he walks through an abandoned Nazi death camp, discovers a faintly breathing woman named Rosita. Weldon rescues her, and falls instantly in love.

After their separation, when Weldon is taken to a military hospital and Rosita to a civilian clinic, Weldon searches Europe to find her and impulsively, but confidently, proposes. Rosita accepts, and they return to the United States, husband and wife.

Burke’s cousin, Weldon Mallette, to whom the book is dedicated, had almost the same experience. It is that experience that provides a philosophical anchor for the book’s Mayflower narrative. The everlasting war between good and evil, compassion and avarice, and kindness and cruelty is what Burke measures in his tour of the mid-20th century. The human primate is perhaps the only animal in existence that carries the seeds of its own success and the tools of its own destruction in opposite hands, building with one hand, burning with the other.

In the same period of history, and on the same spot of dirty, dry land, one human being can organize the mass slaughter of innocent people, only because they belong to an ethnic group different than the professional torturer’s, and in the next instant, two wounded American soldiers, both struggling to save their own lives, will accept the ultimate risk to extend the heartbeat of a stranger.

Burke is fond of having a character reference William Blake’s depiction of evil as a tiger stalking the night. The tiger is on the prowl in the lives of Holland, his wife, and their friends, Hershel Pine and Linda Gail—a fascinating Hollywood starlet in training. It becomes especially bloodthirsty and ravenous after Holland and Pine start an oil company, and prove themselves more efficient at extraction than their much wealthier and larger competitors.

Using technology they learned from their time spent in Nazi Germany, Holland and Pine find themselves swimming in black gold, and their newfound success sets them in the crosshairs of Dalton Wiseheart’s rifle. Wiseheart is an elderly oil tycoon who doesn’t take kindly to Pine and Holland’s refusal to accept a buyout offer. He then brings the demolition derby of his corrupt fleet of followers crashing into the lives of Holland, and his friends and family. The police, the courts, and the local government are all under the influence of the quick cash and lucrative connection that the corrupt oil magnate offers.

“Wars of enormous consequence are fought in places that have no value to anyone,” Burke said with an ominous tone. “People are not interested in what’s happening locally in Louisiana, but if they want to see the future under a petro-chemical oligarchy, they need to go live a few weeks in Louisiana, and see if they like the way things work here.”

The big government-big business nexus responsible for the corruption of the political process, the slow, but steady disappearance of the middle class, and the decay of civic life provide the background to the engrossing struggles of Weldon Holland.

It also prevents Burke’s work from slipping off the high cliff of art into the tar pit of propaganda. “People who write stories about the antebellum South—happy people on plantations, Gone with the Wind—are aiding and abetting a horrific crime. That’s an injustice towards the dead,” Burke said by way of condemning those who blur the line and confuse the distinction between literature and propaganda.

As much as Wayfaring Stranger is a mournful meditation on what Burke calls the “loss of traditional America” he sees in “ecological destruction” and the “breakdown of social civility,” it is also a love letter to America.

Weldon Holland remarks that his generation is the last to “believe in the moral solvency of the Republic,” but Burke still clearly believes in America, the spirit of entrepreneurial adventure essential to the American dream, and the wild variety of not only the American topography, but its people. 

Wayfaring Stranger celebrates the ingenuity of its characters who prefer to author the stories of their own lives according to the will of their own individual desires. Weldon and Hershel start an oil company, and Hershel’s wife sets her sights on one of the oldest American dreams—that which lives in the lights of Hollywood film sets, and promises riches and stardom.

“I’m a capitalist. Anyone who isn’t hasn’t read a single page of a history book,” Burke said.

The character of Weldon Holland captures the capitalistic promise, along with the spirit of exploration and adventure that for so many years made America the most exciting and hopeful place in the world:

“In the years immediately following the war, Hollywood and the drilling industry were probably the only two portals through which a believer in the American dream could wander and suddenly find himself among amounts of wealth and levels of power he never imagined. The prerequisites were few. A teenager who escaped a chain gang in Georgia and climbed off a boxcar in California to pick peaches later became the actor we know as Robert Mitchum. A gambler and occasional wildcatter who drew to an inside straight in a Texas poker game won a deed to a seemingly worthless piece of land that became the biggest oil strike in the United States since Spindletop. The success stories were legion. All you had to do was believe. It was like prayer. What was to lose?”

The openness of Hollywood and oil wealth is what connects the two industries in the book, and it is also what builds a bridge of dollars and coins in the American frontier—the mid-20th-century Wild West, where there weren’t as many guns or cowboys as a hundred years before, but there were more dreamers.

“I have always believed the American West, like Hollywood, is a magical place and the biggest stage set on Earth,” Weldon says. “I also believe it’s haunted by the spirits of Indians, outlaws, Jesuit missionaries, drovers, gunmen, conquistadores, bindle stiffs, Chinese and Irish gandy dancers, whiskey traders, temperance leaguers, gold panners, buffalo hunters, fur trappers, prostitutes, and insane people of every stripe, maybe all of them living out their lives simultaneously in our midst. The Homeric epic doesn’t have to be discovered inside a book; it begins just west of Fort Worth and extends all the way to Santa Monica.”

James Lee Burke has long chronicled the mysteries, charms, and terrors of the American South, from New Orleans to the Tex-Mex border, but he has a soulful love of California, and that is likely why Wayfaring Stranger, more than any of his past books, is so romantic. “No matter what anyone says, all roads lead to Hollywood,” Burke said. “It is the American cathedral. The American pantheon is Grauman’s Chinese Theater.”

The decline and homogenization of American culture—visible in Hollywood as much as anywhere else—makes much of the dream Burke delineates seem as if it is fading away into an impenetrable sleep and no longer the property of the lucid or the alive. Burke insists that he is not nostalgic and he is not delusional. He grew up in rural poverty during the bitter years of racial terrorism and divide. “I’m just telling things the way they were,” he said without apology or uncertainty. “It isn’t nostalgia. It’s just that we had less, which meant we took more pleasure in the things we did have.”

As much as America has triumphed in the interim period between Jim Crow and Barack Obama, it is easy to feel an ache in the soul as Burke, without pausing for a breath, lyricizes his elegy:

“It is not the privation I recall. It’s the great sense of joy and happiness in simple experience. We took so much pleasure in the world we had. It is not the same today. For example, the bookmobile was a WPA program—old bread and milk trucks full of nailed-up shelves. When it came to our neighborhood, it was a big event. That’s how I discovered the Hardy Boys books, and began to love to read. We went to the movies for 10 cents, and the movie changed twice a week. There was something magical about that. Every night on the radio, The Lone Ranger came on, and we learned to love the sound of the William Tell Overture. The sporting events somehow seemed like an extension of our lives. When the popsicle man came around, my mother gave me a nickel. My best friend was a guy named Tommy. Every day I’d use that nickel to buy a twin bar and split it with Tommy. There was an innocence of the time. Everything was recycled. We never used that term, but we never threw anything away. My mother took me to a live radio show in downtown Houston, and we had to be all hush as the skits were conducted. A parent would load the car with kids and take us to an A&W root beer promotion where all you had to do was buy a root beer, and you could watch cartoons together.”

It would be too much to call Wayfaring Stranger the “great American novel,” but it is a great American novel about a great America. Burke, with the help of a protagonist based on his cousin, gives readers a tour of that America, a place of magical possibility tempered only by the evil looming in the distance. It is a place certainly worth visiting, and with Burke as host, one that is difficult to leave.

David Masciotra is a columnist with the Indianapolis Star and the author of All That We Learned About Living: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp, forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky.