The Holland clan that features in various series by the prolific author appears this time in 1952 Houston, where street gangs, mobsters, and class conflict offer a grim view of postwar America.
At 17, Aaron Holland Broussard falls in love with the brainy, beautiful Valerie Epstein just as she’s dumping the scion of one of the city’s wealthiest families. Aaron then upsets a gang of toughs in Valerie’s neighborhood, his best friend drifts into dealing drugs and stealing cars with two Mexican hoods, and the scion turns out to be tied to the twisted son of a vicious local mobster. When a Cadillac used to hide cash and gold goes missing, all the players are involved. Through Aaron’s narration, Burke (House of the Rising Sun, 2015, etc.) muses on courage and one’s response to serious challenges. Aaron’s father went over the top from WWI’s trenches, another man dropped behind enemy lines in WWII, and a third battles alcohol and unemployment. Aaron discovers he is brutally capable with his fists. It’s a rough summer for any teen, though a reference by Aaron to “my trek up Golgotha” is over-the-top in another way. Purplish prose, facile psychology, and short-changed female characters are the trade-offs with this highly readable and sometimes eloquent writer. Burke, age 79, who has said this novel completes a trilogy with Wayfaring Stranger (2014) and Rising Sun (2015), was born in Houston and sets Aaron’s age to match his own in 1952 while also marking him as a would-be writer and having him tell his story some 60 years after the novel’s events. The personal elements might intrigue fans, suggesting real influences for an author whose characters frequently tap reserves of violence and courage to cope with past sins and present evil.
Burke’s gritty coming-of-age tale is a typically entertaining read that may cap a trilogy but also begs for a sequel.