House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
James Lee Burke’s latest novel, “House of the Rising Sun” will strike a chord with fans of Burke’s prose because it contains many elements that readers have come to expect from this popular author. My main concern before starting the novel and offering a review was based on the fact that I have read all of Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, but was less familiar with the Hackberry Holland series and would, therefore, be reading the latest novel in a vacuum. However, the book certainly stands on its own and, given that it is over four hundred pages long, there is plenty of room to establish context.
The novel begins in Mexico in 1916, shifts back to 1891, and then leaps forward to 1918 where the action follows the years just after the end of World War One. Protagonist Hackberry Holland is searching for his son by one of the three women featured in the novel, Ruby Dansen, while trying to decide the fate of a cup that he has found himself the unwitting owner of which is rumored to be the cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper, the Holy Grail. As Sheriff Willard Posey tells Holland, “Either you’re losing your mind, or you have in your possession an object a baptized person is going to have to think very seriously about.” (371). This statement (or perhaps understatement) really addresses the fundamental question with which Holland grapples throughout the novel, that of his responsibility as caretaker of this important artifact. These dual challenges lead him to risk everything to restore a relationship with his son and to find a suitable resting place for the cup. Of course, it matters not a little that his son’s name is Ishmael, suggesting as it does the number of biblical allusions that permeate the novel. In this instance the allusion rings especially true given the fact that Ishmael is, technically, Holland’s illegitimate son, born to the women he loves while technically still married to the problematic Maggie Bassett. Along with Bassett, whose loyalty is always suspect, another woman with whom Holland grapples is Beatrice DeMolay, a madam who might or might not be on Holland’s side at any given time.
The novel’s main antagonist (although a few characters might qualify for this title along the way) is Arnold Beckman, providing readers with a delightfully malevolent character for what is essentially a classic tale of good versus evil. This is not new territory for Burke by any means. Many of his books follow this path to some degree or another. There is, though, an especially diabolical quality to Beckman who is, of course, in pursuit of the chalice and, just as Holland will stop at nothing to rescue his son, Beckman will stop at nothing to retrieve the chalice. The question, as it often is with Burke, is how far his protagonist will be willing to go in pursuit of good when up against a character who embodies evil and who has no limits?
Hackberry Holland is a character type that Burke writes to perfection. He is a fundamentally good man who is brave, self-effacing, and loyal while also being haunted by past deeds for which he seems unable to find forgiveness. Readers will feel his pain and frustration, and delight to see him triumph. Given the length of the book, though, they will also know that his path will not be a smooth one. And while Holland might sound a lot like Burke’s other famous protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, the two characters are far from interchangeable; each comes with his own foibles. Having said that, readers who appreciate the Robicheaux series will also appreciate this novel, with its occasional references to Louisiana, including the Storyville, New Orleans bordello of the title. And readers who enjoy the exploits of Robicheaux’s sidekick, Clete Purcel, will enjoy meeting Andre Darl, a former Haitian voodoo priest who accompanies Holland on the latter part of his quest to find Ishmael.
A knowledge of the history of the area in which the book is set, while advantageous, is not necessary to enjoy the novel, but at times I did find myself making notes to myself to find out more about the conflicts being discussed and some of the characters about whom I wished I knew more. For example, the Sundance Kid appears as a character in the novel, but this is far from the portrayal of the same in the popular movie, this “Kid” being far more malevolent and violent.
Overall, it is hard to limit this review to a few paragraphs. The book is almost an epic, providing not only entertainment but also thought provoking questions about the nature of good and evil. But while it employs deeper themes than others of its genre, it is also a page-turner. Burke’s readers, of which there are many, will recognize his signature on every page, and even those who have never read anything by Burke before cannot help but be impressed by the depth of character development within the novel, and the wonderfully descriptive passages that Burke uses to describe the landscape in which he sets his novel. Burke’s fingerprints are on every page, and readers both new and established will enjoy the journey as they ride along at Hackberry Holland’s side.
Reviewed by Patricia Gaitely
Patricia Gaitely is an associate professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. A native of the UK, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on literature and folklore and is currently writing a book on the fiction of
James Lee Burke.