This is my fifth James Lee Burke novel, and the second featuring Hackberry Holland. After reading the first two of each series, I think I like Hackberry Holland more than Burke’s signature character Dave Robicheaux. In Lay Down My Sword and Shield, the first Holland book, Hackberry is a dissolute lawyer and would-be politician, running for senator in Texas. He is an alcoholic, a frequenter of bordellos and has a fraught relationship with his wife, who is the one who really wants him in politics. As he begins to see the pressures that corporate forces place on him even as he is running and his alcoholism begins to come to a head he has a crisis of conscience and throws it all away to help a union group.
Rain Gods happens 30 years later, more or less. Holland is now an aging local sheriff and a widower (from his second wife). In his county Pete Flores, a young veteran, gets involved with some criminals and finds himself complicit in human trafficking and murder. Holland and others get drawn into the investigation. The main antagonist is Preacher Jack Collins. He is a singular villain. Early on I pictured him as a twist Anton Chigurh type; implacable, inscrutable and seemingly inevitable. But rather than seeing himself as an avatar of blind chance, Collins sees himself as God’s instrument. He also has an odd crisis of conscience which Chigurh never has.
Burke frames his books as moral quandaries. He has profound insights into aspects of human behavior. The need to be a good person, or the inability to see oneself as good is a constant theme in the books I’ve read so far. One thing I love about his work is that the moral microscope is trained as much or more on the protagonists of the stories than the antagonists. This is an impulse that I don’t often see. Morality in the twitter age seems to be something for other people; pointing out others moral failings puts the speaker in the clear. The prosecutor rather than the defendant. Not that people don’t need calling out much of the time; that is an important task. It would just be nice to see some self reflection as well. That is to say, I appreciate Burke’s willingness to wrestle with the question of what makes me good, not just what would make you good, even as I don't 100% agree with his answers to those questions. Not that he doesn’t rail against injustice; he very much does. He’s just refreshingly willing to implicate himself, and by extension the reader, as well. The frustrating thing is that he is nuanced at times, and absolute in others. I found myself nodding at most of it and raising my eyebrow at others.
The writing style, as always with Burke, is unimpeachable. He has a great descriptive voice and a good ear for dialog. Since I compared Preacher Jack Collins to Anton Chigurh (product of having recently reread No Country For Old Men), I might as well say that I like Burke on a sentence to sentence level much more than Cormac McCarthy (an author who I really love). On the book to book level, I probably still prefer McCarthy, but the margin isn’t wide.
Sad addendum: While I was reading this book, I learned of the death of my friend Keith Morgan who introduced me to the work of James Lee Burke, among other writers. He was one of my favorite people to talk books with. We hadn’t spoken in a while, and now we’ll never argue Hackberry Holland vs. Dave Robicheaux. The world is poorer without him.
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