“I’ve waited 50 years to write this book,” says James Lee Burke about Wayfaring Stranger, his first stand-alone novel in over a decade. What he means is that some circumstances had to change before he could tell the tale as boldly as he wished. “The narrator [and protagonist] is based on my cousin, a real person and war hero. He has my cousin’s name: Weldon.” And also certain aspects of his cousin’s personality. The plot, Burke says, is based on truth.
The result of that half-century’s seasoning is a rich, resonant story that re-creates the oil and gas boom in Texas and Louisiana just after the second World War, incorporates historical persons into its texture, and transcends the thriller genre for which he’s so justly famed by inflecting the narrative with echoes of chivalric myth. Wayfaring Stranger is, by any measure, a work cementing Burke into the pantheon of fine literature-makers.
For someone who has spent a lifetime producing crime fiction, the faces of evil should be familiar. Weldon Holland gets his first glimpse at age 16, when his depressed mother is committed to a mental hospital. Immediately after, he encounters outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, and soon he’s surviving the ruthless massacre of American soldiers by Waffen SS Tiger tanks in the Ardennes forest. Rescuing another G.I. from live burial earns him a friend and business partner; rescuing a beautiful prisoner from the horrors of a Nazi death camp leads to love. But his return Stateside and move to Houston brings him into contact with far stealthier manifestations of what Burke calls “pernicious forces—a pathological indifference to the harm they cause in the lives of others.” Burke explains: “Evil doesn’t have a definite form. You can’t localize it in individuals. True evil is bigger than a person; the person is only the agent.”
Evil agencies appear everywhere on the new, brash, post-war Houston scene. Even long-distance gangsters show up; Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Seigel flies in from L.A. to sip cocktails at the Shamrock Hotel opening party. Another agent is the book’s chief villain, a man, Burke says, “with enough wealth and power to buy entire countries with his Diners Club Card.” Oil magnate Dalton Wiseheart presages the theme of some of Burke’s more contemporary work: that America is a country where wealth has been transferred to a tiny fraction of the population, one which controls media, politics, and business, thus obliterating the democratic principles upon which the U.S. was founded. In this story, Burke says, “we meet people who belong to a small minority but a very powerful one, whose agenda is to turn the earth into a giant gravel pit.” Such people make Bonnie and Clyde, whose specters often reappear to Weldon when his life and loved ones are endangered, look like feckless summer campers.
For the most part, Burke says, the men like Weldon and Hershel who built the oil industry in the years following World War II, “are good men. [Weldon] has regret for participating in the terrible environmental damage that was done by people who were really unaware at the time of the consequences of having canals intrude saltwater into living marsh.” Weldon’s and Hershel’s efforts to restore the ecosystems they’ve wrecked make them something of pioneers in their field. “They represent everything that’s good in Americans,” Burke says.
But the evil forces that intend to hurt them possess no such scruples. And suspense escalates with the invisible machinery throbbing behind the scenes.
Burke is legendary for creating vivid atmosphere, landscape and speech patterns. “I’ve always subscribed to the idea that you cannot understand the character without understanding his environment,” he says. His evocations of Louisiana swamps and mosquito-humming woods transport us into a world where the oil pipeline Weldon and Hershel lay marks the edge of a new empire, where the welders locking it together kneel in their visored face-protector helmets like Knights Templar launching a crusade. Houston’s post-war streets and neighborhoods also come alive; the color of a summer twilight, the scent of roses above a silver-laden mansion table, the seedy chow-and-beer joint, all are conjured with equal reality.
The lyrical gravitas of Burke’s prose underlines the moral stance of his hero, an absolutist as fixed toward right and wrong as a compass needling true north. No menace can shove Weldon to compromise; no temptation can break him, and it’s this quality that nearly destroys him and those he cares about. But it’s also what makes him the classic model of many of those men who came home from European and Pacific carnage to resume their lives and re-connect the country. Unlike the flawed heroes of 21st century urban novels, with whom you grudgingly empathize despite their shabby habits, the post-war Weldons have had enough; they may weary of evil’s face, but they’re not afraid to stare it down and slap it.
Carol Dawson is the author of four novels and one non-fiction historical book. She is also a painter.