- Rain Gods: A Novel
- Simon & Schuster, 448 pp.
Good Old Time Revivalist Violence, Mayhem and Mystery
Rugged west Texas landscape, mass murder, a cave full of rattlesnakes and a serial killer who believes that he’s the avenging hand of God. Other than these and a few other items of conflict and mayhem, James Lee Burke’s latest novel Rain Gods is just another peaceful walk in the park. Burke is not just maintaining his high level of writing that runs throughout more than thirty books including seventeen in his Robicheaux series, he’s getting better, tighter, leaner, tougher:
On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic’s shed whose desiccated boards lay collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tires. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.
Burke knows how to set the stage for the horrific slaughter that drives the narrative. From page one he pounds home the story one scene after another. Some of the imagery and development are constructed with such thoroughness and attention to detail that I was reminded of Max Crawford’s brilliant novel Eastertown or perhaps Lords of the Plain. Burke now in his seventies and dividing his time between Missoula, Montana and New Iberia, Louisiana is not taking anything for granted despite winning the Edgar Award twice. Rain Gods is proof of this.
When the main character, Hackberry Holland, became sheriff of a tiny Texas town near the Mexican border, he’d hoped to leave certain things behind: his checkered reputation, his haunted dreams, and his obsessive memories of the good life with his late wife, Rie. But the discovery of the bodies of nine illegal aliens, machine-gunned to death and buried in a shallow grave behind a church, soon makes it clear that he won’t escape so easily.
As Hackberry and Deputy Sheriff Pam Tibbs attempt to untangle the threads of the difficult and grisly case, a damaged young Iraq veteran, Pete Flores, and his girlfriend, Vikki Gaddis, are running for their lives, hoping to outwit the criminals who want to kill Pete for his involvement in the murders. The only trouble is, Pete doesn’t know who he’s running from. Black-out drunk and terrified, he fled the scene of the crime when the shooting began. There’s a long list of people who want Pete and Vikki dead: crime boss Hugo Cistranos, who hired Pete for the operation; Nick Dolan, a strip club owner and small-time gangster with revenge on his mind; and a mysterious fire-and brimstone, Bible verse spouting, serial-killer-for-hire known as Preacher Jack Collins, with enigmatic motives of his own. With the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and these killers on Flores and Gaddis’s trail, it’s up to Sheriff Holland to find them first and figure out who’s behind the mass murder before anyone else ends up dead.
Burke’s life has provided ample experience to draw from for his mysteries that feature world-wise and often world-weary characters that have come to the points in their existences where doing the right thing, helping others and standing up to evil sometimes just seems like the path of least resistance.
Burke was born in Houston, Texas, in 1936 and grew up on the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast. He attended Southwestern Louisiana Institute and later received a B. A. Degree in English and an M. A. from the University of Missouri in 1958 and 1960 respectively. Over the years he worked as a landman for Sinclair Oil Company, pipeliner, land surveyor, newspaper reporter, college English professor, social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles, clerk for the Louisiana Employment Service, and instructor in the Job Corps. He and his wife Pearl met in graduate school and have been married 48 years.
In addition to his Edgar Awards, Burke has also been a recipient of a Breadloaf and Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant. Three of his novels, Heaven’s Prisoners, Two For Texas, and In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead have been made into motion pictures. His novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years, and upon publication by Louisiana State University press was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. When I read this I thought that someone should have given the writer a parade to honor his endurance.
While some of his characters seem like they’ve seen and done it all, they never act blasé and only the least bit cynical at times:
Hackberry went back to the house, set his revolver on the nightstand, and gradually fell asleep. He dreamed of a rodeo bull exploding out of a bucking shoot, The rider’s bones seemed to be breaking apart inside his skin as the bull reared and corkscrewed between his thighs. Suddenly, the rider was in the air, his wrist still tied down with a suicide wrap, his body over the side, whipped and dirt-dragged and flung into the boards and finally horned.
Without ever quite waking from the dream, Hackberry reached for his revolver and clenched its white handles in his palm.
Burke and his characters know that it’s tough out there, but even in the hell of nightmarish dreams they’re ready for the worst. In Rain Gods Hackberry and company manage to take care of business the only way they know – up front and personal.