Friday, May 20, 2011

"Swan Peak" by James Lee Burke

Whenever reality begins to bite too deeply I find myself looking for an escape. The search often leads to James Lee Burke. His novels, based as they are on the sociological mess that we call civilization, don't remove me from reality, they simply confirm for me what is happening in the real world. So, I guess I don't get to escape at all. But the beauty of Mr. Burke's writing is in what you take away from any of his books.

I'm a fan of the Dave Robicheaux series of novels, which primarily take place in New Orleans and involve mob figures, hookers and pimps. Having been raised in a city, I can relate to most of what is happening in the street. But when Dave Robicheaux goes on vacation to Montana, taking along his old sidekick Clete Purcell, I can get lost in the unfamiliar terrain.

When Clete decides to go fishing and accidentally takes the wrong fork in the road, the scene is set, and the race is on. Two men who work for the Wellstone family come out to visit Clete, ordering him from the land. Two college kids are murdered sadistically behind the home of Dave's friend, Albert Hollister, a noted historian and author. The murders set off a chain of events that lead back to the Wellstone family, an evangical, and odd, collection of misfits who feed off of one anothers needs.

What is the secret which is being kept from everyone. What role is Wellstone Ministries really playing? And what are the stakes? Hang on as Mr. Burke tests your patience, and intelligence in this wide ranging mystery.

One of the best things about Mr. Burke's books are the mixture of fact, fiction, and history thrown in. I have never come away from one his books without adding some new music to my ipod. In this book, the character J.D. Gribble, an escapee from a contract prison road gang, serves as the vehicle for the music. He is a dobro player, and leans toward Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Elmore James and Leon McAuliffe. When I get to these parts I always hit You Tube to see what I have missed, or in this case just to re-visit some old music with which I am already familiar.

Want some history with your fiction? Mr. Burke provides that, too. Shedding light on some of the lesser known events which shaped our nation is something that comes naturally to Mr. Burke. Working such notables as John Wesley Hardin into the narrative, along with the Sutton-Taylor Fued will send you scurrying to the history books, as well as educate you a bit.

Do you have a bent for sociological issues? Explore the world of "contract" prisons, those cement modules which have replaced the standard state institutions, bringing with them a whole new set of troubling after effects. The guards who staff these contract prisons are often culled from the ranks of returning veterans form Iraq and Afghanistan. These men have seen some brutal things, and often take them to work with them, keeping the cycle of violence and degradation in motion for another generation.

What are the Wellstones hiding, and why is Troyce Nix after J.D. Gribble? What bond connects us all in our global dance to an unknown tune?

The story becomes almost incidental when you read a James Lee Burke novel. The character development, along with a current relevancy, make his books so much more than fiction. When Mr. Burke writes about the lost and damaged people who inhabit his world, we recognize them from the things we have seen in our own lives. Their weaknesses are our own. Their problems are universal. In short, they serve as windows into the good, and evil, which comprise ourselves.

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