Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Billy Bob Holland novels of James Lee Burke


Well here we are back for an oil change and we're sticking with James Lee Burke, only this time it's his western character, name of Billy Bob Holland. But look, I have to warn you, this can be heavy duty stuff - SAE 80w90 gear box oil to cushion some heavy haulage.

The West has been a mythical landscape for American books and films for more than a century, and these novels continue firmly in that tradition; just like the Overflow or the Snowy for Australians.

Reminds me of the story Pa Russell used to tell when he was droving cattle up the Paroo one year, that's on the Overflow you know, where Clancy who was immortalised twice by Banjo Patterson come from. Must have been some time in the early 20s just after Pop come back from the war. It's around sundown and he sees a campfire in the distance so he rides over and there's this swagman with a red kelpie sitting at a tree stump with a chess board between them.
"How are you goin'" says Pa.
"Alright," says the swaggie, concentrating on the game.
"You must have a pretty smart dog there," comments Pa.
"What d'yer mean?" says the swaggie, looking up indignantly, "I win just as often as he does."
Yeah, they're a funny lot up that way, and I don't mean just the dogs.

Anyway back to Billy Bob, the one-time Texan Ranger turned PI, the settings are Texas and Montana, the latter affording some nice fly fishing action. Novels featuring Billy Bob so far are:

Cimarron Rose (1997)
Heartwood (1999
Bitterroot (2001)
In the Moon of Red Ponies (2004)

This extract is from the opening of Heartwood and touches on the back story of L.Q. Navarro, Billy Bob's former partner in the Texas Rangers whose ghost still visits him, and a whole lot more besides.


"It would be easy to say we resented Earl Deitrich because he was rich. Maybe to a degree we did. He grew up in River Oaks, down in Houston, in an enormous white mansion set up on a hillock surrounded by shade trees. Its size and seclusion separated it even from the Midas levels of wealth that characterized his few neighbors. But our problem with him was not simply his money.
He was an officer, on leave from the army, when he came to the town of Deaf Smith, up in the Texas hill country, where the working classes wrestled drill bits and waited tables and the new rich chewed on toothpicks at the country club. He used his wealth to hold up a mirror to our inadequacies and 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 was heart-breakingly beautiful, who lived in our dreams, who commanded such inclusive respect the roughest kids in the West End dared not make a loose remark about her lest they be punched senseless by their own kind.
Earl Deitrich made us realize that our moments on the dance floor with her at high school proms and the romantic fantasies we entertained about marriage to her had always been the vanity of blue-collar kids who had never been in the running at all. Maybe even the high school quarterback she'd loved before he'd been drafted and killed on the Mekong had not been in the running, either.
But that was a long time ago. I tried not to think about Peggy Jean anymore. She and Earl lived abroad and in Montana much of the year and I didn't have occasion to see them, or to regret the decisions that led me into law enforcement on the border and the months of unrecorded and officially denied nocturnal raids into Coahuila, where a playing card emblazoned with the badge of the Texas Rangers was stuffed into the mouths of the dead.
But try as I might, I would never forget the 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.
When I rose from her hot body, her pale blue eyes were empty, staring at the clouds above the pine tops. I wanted her to say something, but she didn't.
'I don't guess I got a lot of experience at this,' I said.
She ran her hand down my arm and held my fingers. There were blades of grass on her shoulders and breasts.
'You were fine, Billy Bob,' she said.
Then I knew she had not made love to me but to a soldier who had died in Vietnam.
'You want to go to a movie tonight?' I asked.
'Maybe tomorrow,' she replied.
'I like you a whole lot. I know when you lose somebody, it takes a long—'
'We'd better go back now. We'll go to the movie tomorrow. I promise,' she said.
But no one competes well with ghosts. At least no one in our town did, not until Earl Deitrich arrived."


Not bad is it, but there's more. Just as he captures the Loiusiana setting in the Dave Robicheaux books and makes it integral to the action; in the Western books JLB writes lyrically of the landscape of the American mid-west and its people and captures the nuances of language beautifully. JLB's earlier novel with a Montana setting, the Lost Get-Back Boogie (1986), also deserves a mention here, not only because it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but because it shows the early development of his noir style in novel form. The protagonist is a young guitar player on parole and the Blues runs through this book like a hammered-on bass lick in a John Lee Hooker song. Or for that matter Johnny O'Keefe's left foot on stage at the Big Show in the Sydney Stadium concert October 1957, I remember I was with a girl called Sharon but that's another story.

James Lee Burke has been a prolific writer, who is probably now at the peak of his powers and only improves with age, so once you get hooked, well you can look forward to each book as the start of a new adventure.

Like arriving on a wilderness river maybe the upper Thredbo or the Snowy, it's Spring and the water is running high and ice cold against the granite boulders, the morning sun angles through the mist and reflects off the wings of mayfly hatching in the eddies, you set up the rod, thread line with cold fingers and tie on a Kosciusko dun, measure the back cast and flick out the fly into the bubble line, watch the leader straighten and mend line upstream with a quick twitch of the rod tip, there's the swirl of a big trout, you feel the rod flex as the line tightens and you are reconnected once more to the wilderness world of the ancestors, the shaman who takes on the identity of the animal spirits, and all other thoughts fall away...

Now while we're on the subject of hard living blokes, you might remember how I said I had to give up the smokes a while back. Well it's true and and I've never regretted it. You just think about - it's no use a bloke having a family if he's not there any more to look after them, it's a man's responsibility.

I've known some of these blokes who wouldn't give it up, I've been to their funerals, and let me tell you it's not a pretty site. Not only are they turning their wives and kids into widows and orphans, but they're missing out on a lot of good fishing time as well, either because they're too flaming sick or they karked it.

So get real and get the missus of them too if you have too, or so help me I'll come around to your place and put matters straight for you. Alright I'll stop now, read the books I mentioned and remember: in the Bush a bloke always shoots his own dog; in life a man takes responsibility for his actions and their consequences. One time I had to shoot a favourite dog after he bit a child, not his fault but there you are; think about it. So I'll leave you with that and it's hooroo from your mate Jacko until next time.

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All the World

Jaques -
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts...