by James Lee Burke

Published by Doubleday

341 pages, 1999

ISBN: 0385488432

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Burke's Bag of Tricks

Reviewed by Frederick Zackel


As a story, Heartwood creaks like an old leather satchel. It is an awkwardly constructed wannabe thriller that is as stale as 1950s kitsch. That the journey the characters take is violent is less important than that it is tedious. And for all of James Lee Burke's skills as a writer, he has to struggle mightily just to keep the machinery of his tale from rusting to a complete stop.

Billy Bob Holland is Burke's narrator this time around. Billy Bob appeared once before, in 1997's Cimarron Rose. As an alternative to Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, Burke's protagonist in perhaps a dozen earlier novels, Billy Bob leaves much to be desired. This time out the former police officer and Texas Ranger-turned-defense attorney in Deaf Smith, Texas, comes off as small and petty and, worst of all, ineffectual. This characterization isn't so much Billy Bob's fault as it is a consequence of Burke's struggle with a weak storyline.

At this novel's core is the self-destruction of Earl Deitrich, Billy Bob's archrival for the last 30 years. That Deitrich was born wealthy is somewhat unforgivable to Billy Bob. But what really riles him is not just that Earl "used his wealth to hold up a mirror to our inadequacies," but that Deitrich used his wealth to "take Peggy Jean Murphy from our midst, then brought her back to us as his wife and possession, almost as though she were on display."

Peggy Jean Murphy, who Billy Bob describes as "heart-breakingly beautiful," wasn't even Our Hero's childhood sweetheart. Yet she remains the object of his teenage romantic fantasies. What makes the adult Billy Bob so bathetic and trite is that "try as I might, I would never forget that spring afternoon when Peggy Jean got down from the back of my horse and walked with me into a woods above the river and allowed me to lose my virginity inside her."

So Heartwood is about masculinity. A low-rent personal vendetta. Schoolyard bruisers and "so's your old man!" and knuckle sandwiches. While the woman stands off in a corner, wringing her hands. And once again the main female character's importance boils down to her being an object for one man to have or another to take.

All of this plays out around a small, central story: the theft of $300,000 worth of bearer bonds from Deitrich's office safe. The thief is Wilbur Pickett, a small-time rodeo-rider and well-known loser. As Billy Bob says of Pickett: "When he tried to borrow money to start up a truck farm, his own mother told everybody in town Wilbur couldn't grow germs on the bottom of his shoes."

However, Pickett's petty rip-off is merely a writer's crutch. Burke uses it to establish Earl Deitrich's credentials as a villain, somebody who's willing to pick on little guys like Wilbur. This is a role meant to be distinct from that of Billy Bob, who, despite his violent past (he keeps harping on his days working the Tex-Mex border, "where a playing card emblazoned with the badge of the Texas Rangers was stuffed into the mouths of the dead") is supposedly a hero, because he has spent his adult life whacking the bad guys. Billy Bob can't badger or bully Deitrich on his own without losing his credibility as a hero. But when Pickett is arrested, and calls Billy Bob in as his attorney, it gives Holland a seemingly legitimate way to go after Deitrich, to block his archrival's agenda and contribute to his eventual downfall.

* * *

Heartwood is not a plot-driven tale. The way Burke sets it up, the basic storyline is no more complicated than what you might find in a novella. To elongate his plot, Burke uses a ton of writer's tricks. He is a fine novelist. Some of his tricks are successful and enhance the story, but too many do nothing to enrich it. They simply distract, and thus steal dramatic impact from the book's juicy scenes.

Defense attorney Billy Bob, for instance, acts goofy at times. At one point he tells opposing counsel what witnesses he plans to call during Pickett's trial. Another time, this "officer of the court" gets into a brawl with a half-dozen deputies inside the sheriff's office. Then, one night Billy Bob "gets a fever" and gives getaway money to a fugitive from justice. Worse yet, the lawyer gets into face-to-face verbal brawls with Earl Deitrich, complete with name-calling, character assassination and other staples of teenage bravado.

Later, a spiteful Billy Bob has an affair with Peggy Jean -- right under Earl's nose. At a memorable point in their affair, he joins Peggy Jean and some "children from an orphans' home" in a swimming party along a nearby river. The two adults finally sneak away from the juveniles for a little adultery in a handy rustic cottage, even though Billy Bob admits, "I knew it was wrong." But then -- in a very bizarre development -- this particular sex scene goes unconsummated, because the ghost of an old Texas Ranger appears and looks with disgust at Billy Bob's behavior. The scene isn't over yet, though. Because the ghost has kept him chaste, Billy Bob is now morally clean enough to escape from the sensuous bower and save a drowning boy in the river. All of this in a single scene. It's a great scene, in a surreal way, but it is not structurally important to the story; nor does it make the reader think Billy Bob is worth the time expended on him.

Burke persists in portraying his protagonist as a rube. As another character tells Billy Bob in Heartwood, "You could be disbarred for stuff like this." But the attorney seems to have no choice in the matter: He is either a boob or a bully.

Other characters have little more to commend them. This includes Jeff Deitrich, Earl's son, whose criminal antics become the instrument of his father's undoing.

Jeff Deitrich, we're told, isn't Peggy Jean's child, but rather the offspring of Earl's first wife, "a Cajun girl when he was stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana." According to Billy Bob, Jeff is "bright in a limited way and confident and always ingratiating and had done well for two years at the University of Texas." He also fights dirty, which would be OK for a good guy in a post-modern thriller such as Heartwood, but is still stereotypically tedious for the son of the hero's rival.

Deitrich fils is married to a woman named Esmeralda, a Latin beauty. ("Her skin was biscuit-colored, her hair a dark-reddish color, as though it had been washed in iodine.") She's the sister of Cholo Martinez, a drug warlord from East L.A., now settled in "San Antone," who drives a customized 1949 Mercury convertible "with a grille like chromed teeth, the deep maroon finish overpainted with a tangle of blue and red flames blowing out of the hood." All of this is important, because of its impact on Earl Deitrich. Jeff's Mexican marriage to Esmeralda is the first turning point in his father's slow dance toward self-destruction. The son marries the woman to spite his dad. Then, he leaves home, moves himself and his bride into a trailer. He spurns his inheritance and takes up wildcat oil rigging.

When his father's attempt to nullify the marriage fails, Jeff and his new bride suddenly turn Heartwood into something out of an old James Dean movie. During one scene, in which Jeff brings Esmeralda to his father's country club for dinner, the reader is treated to an incredibly banal and clumsy retread of 1950s movie making. It may the single worst scene in Heartwood. A forgiving reader might accept that the dissolute son of the county's richest land baron would take his brand-new Hispanic wife to a lily-white country club. The reader might even forgive -- if not accept cheerfully -- that Jeff's ex-girlfriend Rita Summers would be there with a coterie of their ex-mutual friends. But what really strains a reader's suspension of disbelief is that blonde and blue-eyed Rita would go out of her way to congratulate Jeff and his new bride, and then add, "I guess you've worked out all your little sexual problems." At which point the reader is ready to join Jeff as he escorts Esmeralda from the country club in a huff. Yet Burke isn't finished milking this bad scene. He has Esmeralda make a lightning visit to the ladies room before they leave. That way, they can depart with a "long strand of wet toilet paper" still attached to the sole of her shoe.

Not unexpectedly, Jeff's marriage eventually turns sour. Without his father's money and power, he becomes impotent and, filled with embarrassment and self-hatred, storms out of the couple's trailer. As this yarn cranks along, Jeff becomes the very spawn of evil, a homicidal lunatic. Or, in Billy Bob's words: "I think Jeff Deitrich is a sexual nightmare. I think he's violent and dangerous and has racist instincts. I hope Esmeralda gets as far from the Deitrich family as possible."

* * *

Now, writing a novel every year -- as Burke does -- is tough. It forces the author to keep coming up with new villains (old ones have a shelf life), as well as new secondary characters who can distract the reader when the plot starts to sag or other players aren't performing up to par. Heartwood has its share of such figures.

Among them is Hugo Roberts, the resident crooked county sheriff. His job is to be an obstacle to justice -- especially justice as Billy Bob sees it. Roberts is a stock character, with little about him that could be called memorable, save for the viciousness that shows occasionally in his face. ("[H]e grinned at me, his lips purple in the gloom, his eyes full of gloat.")

Wilbur Pickett's blind wife Kippy Jo is another decent distraction. Alone in her house on a dark and stormy night, she is somehow able to shoot an intruder in both eyes. As if that talent weren't enough, Wilbur tells Billy Bob that "My wife sees pictures in her head. It scares me sometimes. She says you got dead people following you around" -- the ghosts of folks Billy Bob has killed down in Old Mexico over the years.

Ghosts figure into all of Burke's novels, I believe. But he doesn't use them particularly well. In their own dramas, the ancient Greeks and Romans would have fictional characters fall asleep, and the dreams they would then have were used to speed up the plot, or explain storylines, or delineate character, or reveal hidden mysteries. Ulysses met the ghost of his mother in Hades; I know of few other fictional episodes more horrifying in their impact. In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens used ghosts to completely alter how modern civilization celebrates the birth of Christ. In Beloved, Toni Morrison used a ghost to personify and personalize the horrors of four centuries of slavery. And, of course, there are all the dead people the little boy sees in this year's box-office hit, The Sixth Sense.

Burke just likes to have resident ghosts around. The real world suddenly gets misty and hazy, and the ghosts, they pop up, and when they do... well, not much happens. In Heartwood, Burke even dishes in a few ghosts from the Belgian Congo -- yes, shades right out of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "Evidently," we're told, "[Earl Deitrich's] great-grandfather was an Alsatian diamond miner and slaver for the Belgians." Ghosts of century-dead slaves just hover here and there in Heartwood, on the periphery of our astral plane, like unnoticed paintings on a wall. Billy Bob suggests that these spirits "want revenge," but he offers no reasons why they should have waited a century to scurry across the ocean and onto this side of the Deitrich family tree in order to exact their vengeance.

There are some technical problems with this story, too. Some result from Burke's decision to write in the first-person. Obviously the narrator cannot describe events he didn't witness. Yet events do occur in Heartwood at which Billy Bob is not present. So periodically, we find him listening to other characters as they recite -- verbatim -- conversations they have had with still other characters. Sometimes what we learn isn't even hearsay; it's just Billy Bob "fictionalizing" what no one could have witnessed. All of this contributes to the story's tedium. It's the white noise of Burke's machinery.

Now, don't get me wrong: James Lee Burke is far from being a hack. He is a lyrical writer, perhaps one of the finest poetic voices in popular fiction. He uses all the senses. He uses more colors, more often than any other writer I have read, save maybe for Lawrence Durrell. Note, for instance, how he describes one of Jeff Deitrich's college buddies: "Hammie's blond hair was wet with gel, his face sunburned, the side of his thick neck still scabbed with the purple and burnt-orange tattoo of a butterfly." Burke also writes sound better than almost anyone else. ("I could hear the horses nickering out in the pasture, the windmill shifting in the breeze, the blades ginning furiously.")

The author does get carried away, though, with the susurration of his own rhythms, and the reader has to trudge through sentences that are derivative of bad Joyce and worse Hemingway:

Instead I kept thinking of Wilbur Pickett and the uncomfortable reality that I had never come to terms with my feelings for Peggy Jean Murphy, who was another man's wife now, or with the memory of what it was like to feel her hand slip down the small of my back, her thighs cradling my hips, while I came inside a woman for the first time and the fecund odors of damp earth and bruised grass and wildflowers rose around us in a green envelope that for a moment seemed to hold together the vanity of my passion and her unrequited love for a dead soldier.

Curiously, Burke rarely integrates these sights and sounds and other sensualities into his story. They come off as very distinct and separate passages, and the reader gets the impression that they were added after the narrative of the novel was completed. They jar.

James Lee Burke is a prolific writer. He has written 17 novels, some of them very good. But Heartwood is not one of his best. | November 1999


FREDERICK ZACKEL is a novelist, educator and frequent contributor to January Magazine.