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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Two years ago, James Lee Burke published
In Cimarron Rose — and in its newly published sequel, Heartwood— Burke has shifted his focus from the bayou country of Louisiana to the fictional small town of Deaf Smith, Texas, and has replaced Dave Robicheaux with the equally angst-ridden Billy Bob Holland, a defense attorney and former Texas Ranger who carries with him a host of personal demons, a large measure of unresolved guilt, and an extreme, barely repressed capacity for violence. As anyone familiar with the Robichaux series will realize, these are the classic characteristics of a James Lee Burke hero.
Heartwood also invokes a classic James Lee Burke theme: the poisoning of the American heartland by the forces of ignorance, brutality, expediency, and greed. In Heartland, these forces are embodied by Earl Deitrich, the richest and most desperate man in Deaf Smith. Deitrich — who is married to the first great love of Billy Bob Holland's life, the beautiful and unattainable Peggy Jean Murphy — has managed to squander, leverage, or gamble away the lion's share of a family fortune that an earlier generation of Deitrichs acquired by trafficking in the diamond mines oftheBelgian Congo and by enslaving and exploiting the Congo's native population. Earl Deitrich, in conjunction with a local Mexican-American youth gang called the Purple Hearts, has resorted to a sleazy series of scams in order to maintain his accustomed cash flow: enticing friends and business acquaintances into high-stakes poker games, which are then held up at gunpoint; torching his own vacant building in downtown Houston, an act that results in the deaths of four firemen; and accusing a down-on-his-luck ex-rodeo star of robbery, then presenting his insurance company with a vastly inflated claim for the stolen items.
Set against Deitrich and his various schemes is embattled defense attorney Billy Bob Holland, who is forced to contend, simultaneously, with a number of related issues: the depredations of Deitrich's son Jeff, a teenaged sociopath with deep-seated sexual problems and a pronounced sadistic tendency; his residual feelings for the still beautiful, still unattainable Peggy Jean Deitrich; his difficult relationship with his illegitimate son, Lucas; and his own long-standing propensity for meeting violence with violence. As the story progresses and the tension between opposing forces steadily increases, the atmosphere in Deaf Smith gradually ignites in a series of explosions that leave several people dead and which climax with a hallucinatory encounter between father and son, an encounter that ends the local domination of the Deitrich family in an ironic, and tragic, fashion.
Despite its relatively new venue, Heartwood is immediately recognizable as the work of James Lee Burke. It is, first of all, a densely observed book, filled, in typical Burke fashion, with amazingly detailed portraits of the people, places, and things that, taken together, make up the world of Deaf Smith, Texas. Burke, as always, misses nothing. His sense of place is nothing short of astonishing, and his evocation of the beauties of the natural world — in this case, the hill country north of Austin — is powerful, poetic, and absolutely convincing.
Like so much of Burke's earlier work, Heartwood is also a novel in which the lovingly detailed physical world is constantly interpenetrated by the world of the spirit, a world in which ghosts speak, psychic visions reveal hidden truths, and the door between different levels of reality occasionally swings open. Burke has always managed this delicate balancing act with great resourcefulness (see In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead for a particularly striking example of this tendency), and Heartwood continues this idiosyncratic tradition in typical high style.
With two Billy Bob Holland novels under his belt, Burke has effectively launched an alternate series of suspense novels that may well rival the Robicheaux books in both quality and popularity. Heartwood, like the novels that preceded it, is the work of a real writer, a man with a dark, sorrowful vision of a violent, self-destructive society. It confirms James Lee Burke's position as one of the preeminent crime novelists of late-20th-century America.