Tuesday, October 4, 2011

New Interview- James Lee Burke (FEAST DAY OF FOOLS)

James Lee Burke
LISTEN TO the interview

FEAST DAY OF FOOLS (Kindle Edition) in an important American novel. Mr. Burke's prose powers have reached new levels of sophistication. I truly believed that after his 'trilogy' of books that included PEGASUS DESCENDING, TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN, and JESUS OUT TO SEA that he had fulfilled his mission as a writer; the the strand of DNA that has flowed through Burke's writing had found its ultimate expression in his chronicling of the nightmare that was Hurricane Katrina. 

I felt that his writing had reached a fever pitch that was influenced by his love of New Orleans (and the people of New Iberia). The short story titled JESUS OUT TO SEA captured the essence of Katrina in a few pages. How could he top that? What could be more important and relevant to our world than to have James Lee Burke write about Dave Robicheaux's outrage at what took place?

I was wrong. Burke was far from finished. I have had the honor of interviewing him eight times, the most recent interview took place last week. Mr. Burke and I talked for over an hour and you can hear the interview in its entirety at the bottom of the review by clicking on the link. If you only read one book this year read FEAST DAY OF FOOLS. If you only listen to one of my interviews, listen to this one.

Here is what Michael Connelly wrote about the novel:

"You know what is rare? A veteran and prodigious writer who never lets you down. Who, with each book, and I’m talking about a lot of books, makes you feel like you have discovered something new, learned some hidden truth about human behavior and society. James Lee Burke is one of those rarities. Book to book he keeps it going, never disappointing. Last year's masterpiece is just prelude to this year's new masterpiece. 

It flat out astounds me. I can count the names of other writers in this category on one hand. There is no magic formula for this. It's something that comes from within, an indeterminate mixture of craft and wisdom and the relentless pursuit of perfection. It comes from knowing deep in the bones that life is about reconciliation and redemption. Burke's books carry these truths in spades.

About twenty-five years ago I picked up a book called The Neon Rain in a bookstore simply because I liked the cover. I read the flaps and read the first page and went to the cash register. Soon I was into my first ride with James Lee Burke. 

The Neon Rain was that year's masterpiece. This year, we have Feast Day of Fools and my survey of Burke books in between concludes that he remains the heavy weight champ, a great American novelist whose work, taken individually or as a whole, is unsurpassed."

FEAST DAY OF FOOLS is an allegory. It was a medieval practice that began in the 1200s and was eventually abolished. The serfs and peasants were given two days to do whatever they desired, nothing was too profane. After two days they were given absolution and returned to work. Burke takes us deeply into the society we live in and turns a mirror on us. It is not a flattering view.

Hackberry Holland is on a mission to catch Preacher Jack Collins and bring him to justice. The Preacher is the most evil and dangerous characters that Burke has created. He is complex, he is vicious, yet he has a genuine respect for Sheriff Holland. Burke's use of juxtaposition with these two characters is breathtaking.

The plot centers on the Narco trafficking that takes place on the Texas border. It also discussed the campesinos and the coyotes that comprise the illegal immigration problem on our Mexican border.

On page 58 Burke writes, "But as John Steinbeck had said long ago, we had come to fear a man with a hole in his shoe." This level of insight infuses the pages of the novel, giving the reader the sense that we are in the hands of a master: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Faulkner, or Hemingway.

On page 200, when Hack is confronting his mortality, he writes, "Death was only bad when you had to face it knowing you had failed to live during the time allotted you, or that you had lied to yourself about the realities of the world or willingly listened to the lies of others." Hack's view of mortality is closer to him now, its presence is palpable. Mr. Burke and I discuss this issue at great length during the interview.

Temple Dowling represents the elite and landed gentry of Texas. He is a politician who belongs to the local country club. Here is how James Lee Burke describes the club and its members: "one had the sense that the club was a place where no one died, where all the rewards promised by a benevolent capitalistic deity were handed out in this world rather than the next." 

His discussion of the 'hijacking of religion in America is spot-on and frightening. The Biblical references that Burke uses sent me to Google on many occasions, and each time it was worth the clarification. Burke's knowledge of theology and the dangers of war are encyclopedic. No one avoids his gaze in FEAST DAY OF FOOLS. This is what makes it a classic.

There is a tenderness and a feeling of melancholy that the reader develops for Hack Holland (and Mr. Burke).On page 462 he writes, "But if a man tries to put all of the lessons he has learned on a road map for others, he might as well dip his pen in invisible ink." 

Mr. Burke is 75 and has written 30 novels. His face belongs on the walls of Barnes & Noble. He has earned it. Like Michael Connelly I can count on one hand the authors I believe will be relevant in 100 years. James Lee Burke will be one of them.

I am proud to call him a friend.

LISTEN TO the interview