'Feast Day of Fools': Torture, death, and a Texas sheriff

Posted: September 25, 2011

By James Lee Burke

Simon & Schuster. 463 pp. $26.99

Reviewed by Deen Kogan
When the literary lights of the 21st century go marching in, James Lee Burke will be leading the parade.

For five decades, Burke has created memorable novels that weave exquisite language, unforgettable characters, and social commentary into written tapestries that mirror the contemporary scene. His work transcends genre classification.

Feast Day of Fools is Burke's 30th novel and the third in the Hackberry Holland series. This sheriff of a small Southwest border town, a reformed drunk in the twilight of his life, dealing with personal tragedies and demons, takes on a parcel of the most wicked men in modern day fiction in this chronicle of violence along the Tex-Mexican border.

Danny Boy Lorca is the town drunk. He's a former middleweight club fighter who took too many punches as a "rumdum Indian who ate his pain and never flinched when his opponents broke their hands on his face."

Some nights, the sheriff lets him sleep in the county jail; some nights he sleeps behind the saloon, and sometimes in his stucco house bordering an alluvial flood plain. The townsfolk ridicule his visions, seizures, and trances, attributing them to the fighting, a stint in jail, and too much mescal.

Only on the night in question, it's not a vision.

When the screams of the tormented man finally softened and died and were swallowed by the wind, Danny Boy raised his head above a rock and gazed down the incline where the tangle of tumbleweed and deadwood partially obscured the handiwork of the armed men. The wind was laced with grit and rain that looked like splinters of glass. When lightning rippled across the sky, Danny Boy saw the armed men in detail.

The next day, Danny Boy led the sheriff and his chief deputy, Pam Tibbs, to the murder site and the investigation began.

When Hackberry stepped out on the passenger side, his eyes roved over the tangles of tumbleweed and bleached wood and the remains of the man whose death may have been the most merciful moment in his life. "You ever see anything like this?" Pam said, her words clotting in her throat. . . . Hackberry stepped back from the site and repositioned himself so he was upwind again. But that did not change the nature of the scene or its significance. The compulsion to kill was in the gene pool, he thought. Those who denied it were the same ones who killed through proxy. Every professional executioner, every professional soldier, knew that one of his chief duties was to protect those he served from knowledge about themselves. Or at least those were the perceptions that governed Hackberry's judgments about societal behavior, even though he shared them with no one.

Feast Day of Fools is a richly complex novel with several themes and subplots. At times, these seem unrelated, almost extraneous, but Burke justifies each spin-off through extraordinary characterizations, dialogue, sense of place, and an almost mystical, allegorical summation.

In the course of his investigation, Hackberry deals with Mexican drug dealers, Russian mobsters, and ex-cons of various sizes and shapes, as well as other despicable characters, including prominent citizens of the county. An Asian woman who harbors illegals, and is called La Magdalena by the locals, is a particularly original creation.

While Burke is best known for his Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux canon, which debuted in 1987 with The Neon Rain, the Hackberry Holland sagas offer him broader opportunities to explore Jung-like aspects of individual well-being: cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual. A central theme is that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goods.

Burke has received many literary honors. He has been the recipient of a Breadloaf and Guggenheim Fellowship, been awarded two Edgars by the Mystery Writers of America for best crime novel of the year, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie, and was the American Guest of Honor at Bouchercon 23, the international gathering of crime-fiction devotees. Three of his novels have been made into motion pictures: Two for Texas, Heaven's Prisoners, and In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

In a 2003 essay for the Nation, Burke wrote: "The potential in human beings for either good or evil seems limitless."

With Feast Day of Fools, he makes his point.

Deen Kogan is the director of the Society Hill Playhouse and a producer of literary conferences. She can be reached at shp@erols.com.

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