Review #1 by Joe Hartlaub
Where does one start when attempting to review a novel on the order of FEAST DAY OF FOOLS by James Lee Burke? I have been at this work for some 14 years, doing the job passably at times, less so at others, recommending this novel or that to readers for various reasons. A lot of it might be considered momentum, all leading up to this author and this magnificent book. Whether you read books by the armful each week or month, or just one or two a year, or, perhaps, have not read a book from beginning to end since you left school, you simply must read FEAST DAY OF FOOLS, a flawless story, wonderfully, colorfully and fearfully told, and perfect in every way.
"Whether you read books by the armful each week or month, or read one or two a year, or, perhaps, have not read a book from beginning to end since you left school, you simply must read FEAST DAY OF FOOLS, a flawless story, wonderfully, colorfully, and fearfully told, and perfect in every way."
Burke is in his mid-70s chronologically, yet his most recent work defies easy categorization with respect to age. He writes with the strength of a man a third of his age, with the skill of a man half his age and with the acquired wisdom of three lifetimes. There is no falter to FEAST DAY OF FOOLS, no age-related intellectual palsy, no dimming of vision, physical or otherwise. In setting and subject matter, it is as sure, straight and true as the end product and result of a sharpshooter’s rifle, yet as broad as a painter whose canvas is an end-to-end horizon. Burke’s peers are John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, and --- with FEAST DAY OF FOOLS and its predecessor, RAIN GODS --- Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. But by virtue of the volume, force and consistency of his bibliography, Burke stands a step or so apart, wholly on his own.
FEAST DAY OF FOOLS returns to the southwest Texas border town that is the province of Sheriff Hackberry Holland, a former attorney who has earned the respect of his constituents by treating all within his purview equally and fairly. Holland nonetheless wrestles with nightmares, including continuing grief of the loss of his wife and his attraction to Pam Tibbs, his extremely capable and competent deputy who is several decades his junior.
The events here occur shortly after the conclusion of RAIN GODS, with Holland afforded little respite from the events of that work. An alcoholic ex-boxer named Danny Boy Lorca witnesses the torture and death of one man and the escape of another in a nightmarish desert tableau. His report of the events to Holland eventually lead Holland and Tibbs to an enigmatic and complicated woman named Anton Ling, whose isolated home serves as a sanctuary and way station for illegal immigrants. Ling dangerously puts Holland in the mind of his deceased wife, a fact that has the potential to cloud his judgment just as the deeds of Ling’s past and his own intersect in ways that could never be predicted.
Matters are further complicated by the return of Preacher Jack Collins, who was presumed dead at the end of RAIN GODS. Collins is one of the most interesting and fearful characters one is likely to encounter in modern fiction, possessed of seemingly preternatural abilities and surprising frailties, and yes, a dangerous madness that has the potential to manifest itself against anyone crossing his path. Yet, as with a great number of the characters encountered in the pages of FEAST DAY OF FOOLS, Collins is not entirely incapable of redemption. As a number of different and dangerous players slowly converge upon a hobbled man carrying a deadly secret, Collins and Holland form a shaky and untrusting alliance as they approach a cataclysmic confrontation from which only survival is anything but guaranteed.
FEAST DAY OF FOOLS is a parable shot through with unforgettable narrative metaphor and characters, good and bad, who will find permanent stations in your waking hours and nightmares. If Burke is putting paid to the worlds he has created over the past several decades, his legions of readers have no cause to complain, for he has saved his finest wine for the end.
Review #2 by Roz Shea
James Lee Burke, over a long and stellar career of writing quite possibly the best action fiction in contemporary American literature, continues to bring us novels crafted in such clarity, depth of characters and tantalizing description that the only word I can come up with to describe his writing is “tactile.” You can feel, taste, touch and smell his scenes and characters at a level to which other writers aspire, but rarely achieve. One has to wonder at the process his brain goes through in setting these mere words to paper. They are all in the dictionary, but how does he place them in such perfect order? After 40 years in publication of as many novels, each one just gets better. There isn’t a hackneyed phrase in this man.
"After 40 years in publication of as many novels, each one just gets better. There isn’t a hackneyed phrase in this man."
In 1971, at the height of the civil rights movement, before he wrote the first of his best-known Dave Robicheaux series, Burke created Hackberry Holland. Young Hack was a Texas lawyer with political aspirations who was descended from a long line of Texas lawmen of one stripe or another. The son of a US Congressmen, he skated through Baylor Law School to practice law with dreams of following in his father’s footsteps. His path was interrupted by a 36-month sojourn in a Chinese POW camp during the Korean War, but it didn’t deter him from pursuing that dream in Burke’s first novel, LAY DOWN MY SWORD AND SHIELD. Those events forever shaped the man he is now.
We meet up with Hack Holland again, now the aging sheriff of a rural South Texas border county. Widowed, he lives alone on the family ranch in what he thought would be peaceful semi-retirement, tending to his quarter horses and nominal legal duties. This abruptly changed a year earlier, when the pastoral setting became a corridor for drug smugglers and human peddlers. It was the ideal location for their business transactions, but the discovery of a grave holding the bodies of nine young Asian girls, headed for a life of prostitution, rained hell on the county, dragging in the FBI and Homeland Security and every kind of firepower short of howitzers before it was over. He thought it was concluded when the crazed villain, Preacher Jack Collins, who had gunned down the girls with his Thompson machine gun, fell in a hail of bullets at the back of a cave at the end of 2010’s RAIN GODS.
When a regular guest of the county drunk tank, Danny Boy Lorca, staggers into the sheriff’s office with a wild tale of witnessing a grisly moonlight execution outside of town, nobody takes him seriously. Investigation bears Danny Boy out, and Sheriff Holland finds evidence that points to Preacher Jack Collins. Could he have survived the firefight of a year earlier? It also points to a Russian flesh peddler and another psychopath called Krill.
“This area has never been quite real to me,” FBI agent and friend Frank Riser tells Holland. “It’s a place where nothing is what it seems. A piece of moonscape where improbable people live and lunatics can hide in plain sight.” The New York Times calls Preacher Jack “one of Burke’s most inspired villains.” Burke has imbued this mad man with the virtues of a saint and the villainy of Lucifer. He kills with a sense of absolution and surety that makes perfect sense to him. No one dies at his hand who does not either deserve it or would be better off dead for their own sake. Preacher Jack simply sees himself as their personal guide in their last journey.
Thus starts a reign of terror as Preacher Jack kidnaps a defecting scientist, a Quaker who invented a drone for a defense contractor that could deliver weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the world. The deranged scientist believes that he should turn the plans over to al Qaeda as revenge for the loss of life at the World Trade Center. Preacher takes it upon himself to help him against the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security and Sheriff Hack Holland.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub and Roz Shea on September 29, 2011