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Burke spins complicated tale full of violence

Burke spins complicated tale full of violence

In House Of The Rising Sun (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 435 pages, $27.99), James Lee Burke tells the story of Hackberry Holland, a retired Texas Ranger, and his son Ishmael, their separation since Ishmael was a small boy, and the wars they fight against various enemies to try and find each other again.

Their epic attempts to reunite run from the battlefields of World War I to the bloodthirsty skirmishes of factions during the Mexican Revolution, from the brothels and gambling joints of Texas cow towns to the fancy hotels and mansions of San Antonio. Several hundred characters, most of them minor, most of them “bad guys,” populate the canvas of House Of The Rising Sun, and many of them wind up dead or badly beaten by the novel’s end. (I lost count of the bodies about a third of the way through the book). 

Arnold Beckman, an Austrian-born arms dealer who is evil incarnate, wants to supply the world with weapons following the Great War, and becomes Hack’s opponent when their paths cross in Mexico. Also opposing Beckman, at one time or another, are a former voodoo priest from Haiti and three women: Maggie Bassett, a former prostitute who marries Hack (she doesn’t have the stereotypical heart of gold of that profession, but a heart for gold); Beatrice DeMolay, a brothel madam who provides the link to the House of the Rising Sun; and Ruby Dansen, Hack’s lover, mother of Ishmael, and a leader in the labor unions of that time.

Thrown into this complicated arrangement is the Holy Grail. When Hackberry destroys some weapons belonging to Beckman, he also takes a chalice that Beckman believes is the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Believing that the cup will bring him immense power, Beckman goes to any lengths — bribery, intimidation, kidnapping, and murder — to recover the chalice.

James Lee Burke is highly regarded for his powers of description, his characters, and his storytelling. In House Of The Rising Sun, he demonstrates this power through his evocation of everything from the setting of a Texas sun to the inside of a grim field hospital in France. At one point, Ishmael has command of some of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” a highly-decorated African-American unit fighting against the Germans in the final days of the War. For this reviewer, Burke’s vivid treatment of these men provided a miniature history lesson.  

Burke frequently brings the past into play as he spins out his tale. The Alamo, George Custer, heroes and villains of the Mexican Revolution: all arise for discussion. In one scene, when Ishmael is facing death at the hands of an abductor, he revisits in his mind the Mediterranean of the Middle Ages:

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“Acceptance of his fate did not mean he should be passive about it. For just a moment, as though he were looking through a third eye in his forehead, he saw a medieval fortress on the shores of Malta and Crusader Knights in chainmail and white tunics with red Templar crosses, surrounded by their Saracen enemies. Their death was a foregone conclusion, but rather than surrender, they executed their prisoners and used catapults to fling the decapitated heads over the walls into the Saracen line and went down to the last man, their swords ringing.

“Could he be as brave and defiant as they?”

House Of The Rising Sun is not without its flaws. Despite being the “hero,” Hackberry seems to thrive on violence and confrontation. Though a former Ranger, he rarely resorts to the law, preferring instead to beat anyone to a pulp who crosses him or his loved ones. Arnold Beckman is supposed to be a sophisticated man of business, but like Hackberry prefers maiming or killing people who get in his way. 

Sometimes, too, events occur in House Of The Rising Sun that make little sense. When Beckman wants to kidnap Ishmael, why does he go about that kidnapping in such a convoluted way? Why at one crucial point of the story does Hackberry, who has never operated an automobile, insist on driving and almost destroying Beatrice DeMolay’s REO? Why at the end of the book does Hackberry not finish off his vendetta with Beckman? Why again does Maggie Bassett, when taking her vengeance against a man who has wronged her, choose such a complicated path of revenge? 

Finally, after all that transpires in this novel, after all the twists and turns, the ending seems rushed. In particular, the final fate of the Holy Grail — and by novel’s end we are led to believe this chalice is the genuine article — seems absurd. Men have fought and died both to steal and to protect this chalice, yet Hackberry leaves it with a certain man because “I saw a mess of children playing out in the street.”

These are not quibbles, but in spite of the imperfections, House Of The Rising Sun brings a good deal of pleasure, especially in the fine prose. Because I did a good bit of driving this past month, I listened to about a third of the novel as narrated by Will Patton, whose skillful reading along with to Burke’s gift for the English language only increased that pleasure.

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