Hatin’ the Hustle: Another Holland Fights
Review of James Lee Burke’s The Jealous Kind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
In his acknowledgements, Burke thanks three people for helping to make “this novel one of the best I have written.” He is a good judge of his own work; his assessment of The Jealous Kind is accurate. The New York Times Book Review has another defining valuation: “James Lee Burke is the reigning champ of nostalgia noir” (Back cover).
In this addition to the Holland family saga, readers are introduced to Aaron Holland Broussard, an eleventh grader living in the south side of Houston in 1952. We meet him about a week before school lets out for the summer. Once school lets out, Broussard will buy his own car, “a 1939 Ford from a neighbor who’d just been drafted and probably headed for Korea” (71). Life is good, and the car symbolizes that fact. “The Ford [he found] wasn’t just a heap, either. It had twin pipes and Zephyr gears and a Merc engine with milled heads and hot cam and high-speed rear end. It could hit sixty in five seconds” (71).
Life is good, and our hero knows it.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. . . It was the hurricane season, but we had no hurricanes. Instead there were purple and crimson and orange clouds in the sky at sunset, and Gulf breezes that smelled of flowers and rain. We ate fried chicken off paper plates at Bill William’s drive-in restaurant by Rice University and skated at the roller rink on South Main to organ music under a tent billowing with the cool air blown by huge electric fans. We went swimming at the Shamrock Hotel, across the street from a cow pasture spiked with oil derricks pumping fortunes into the pockets of men who had eighth-grade educations. (71- 72)
Broussard’s well-drawn perceptions of his physical environment are matched by his social insight. “A jalopy packed with rough kids drinking quart beer seemed no more than what it was, a car packed with kids who were born less fortunate than I and wanted to pretend for just one night they were happy” (71).
Readers meet Broussard on a day he has borrowed his dad’s company car to drive to Galveston. This is also the day he finds his life-time love, first championing and then falling for a young auburn-haired beauty who is fighting with her boyfriend. The daughter of a brave and confident Parisian war-resister, Valerie Epstein is one of Burke’s best female characters—smart, confident, creative, and practical. She doesn’t need Aaron—or anyone’s help; in fact, on this evening of their meeting--while he continues to spar with Valerie’s spurned boyfriend--she hikes to the Greyhound station and takes a bus home.
This fight signals the beginning of Broussard’s personal maturation from boy to man as it also marks the collision of multiple segregated strands of society. While race and nationality are important considerations in fifties Houston; it is class conflict that Burke masterfully depicts in this novel. Broussard’s first description of his school sets the stage: “Our school was located close to River Oaks, a tree-shaded paradise filled with palatial homes. But the school district was huge and extended into hard-core blue-collar areas of North Houston and even over to wayside and Jensen Drive, where some of the roughest kids on earth lived” (21). Social stratification defines their day-to-day life. Broussard and his best friend Saber define the world along societal parameters as they discuss that fight and a subsequent incident.
“Guys with Loren’s record don’t start a beef in this part of town unless they want to pick state cotton.”
“I went into their territory.” (25)
Similarly, when Broussard tells his father about the same incident, he explains the incident succinctly with only a geographical reference, “I got into it with some guys from the Heights” (27).
Community class struggles are exacerbated by mob infiltration and racketeering. Small town squabbles turn into big city drama turn into international set-ups and scams. The story, in fact, could be considered a Southern West Side Story, as groups of teenagers battle over territory, but text transcends formula because the descriptions of Aaron, Valerie, Saber, and Loren Nichols’ friendship are compelling and complete. Their alliances and genuine bonds contrast starkly those of their competitors and peers, Grady Harrelson and Victor Atlas. These two—while privileged in some respects—have never known love, and it is Burke’s tender rendering of their aberrations and their vulnerabilities that makes the characters exceed villainous typecasts.
Although the novel’s retrospective rendering allows Broussard’s adult mentality and voice to present the story, Broussard’s burgeoning political insight is believable even during his adolescence because of his father’s tutelage. Their consistent and kindly home-education sessions make Broussard’s burgeoning political insight believable. The liberal father is attempting to raise a concerned son-citizen, “Just a few weeks earlier we had been part of a postwar era that had not antecedent. No other country had our power or influence. Music was everywhere. Regular was eighteen cents a gallon. All the services on a car--window washing, oil check, tire inflation—were free. Those small and inglorious translated into a confidence that seemed to dispel mortality itself, even though Joseph McCarthy was ripping up the Constitution and GIs were dying in large numbers in places no one could locate on a map or would take the time to spit on” (115-116).
Depending on one’s perspective, Broussard’s middle-class life-style is either marred or simply marked by his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s depression and neurosis (2-3). Although he is unable to reconcile with their choices until later, Broussard already knows their stories and the reasons that they have settled into this life (9, 15). At the outset of the tale, he does not have the compassion to accept them.
As the novel progresses, however, Broussard lovingly paints his parents’ portraits—his descriptions razor sharp and precise but softened by compassion. The son understands his father’s intelligence and gentleness. And he understands his father’s slide from action and bravery to dejection as they watch the post-war America transform from a reality of real courage and confidence to a sham, a full-on confidence-game:
My father came in late, brushing against the doorway and the pictures on the wall in the hallway. A few minutes later I saw him through the partially open bathroom door. He was sitting on the edge of the tub, smoking a cigarette in his shirtsleeves and undershorts and socks, his garters clipped on his calves. His face was furrowed, his stubble gray, his hand trembling when he lifted his cigarette.
. . . .
“Can I help with something?”
He stared into empty space. “No, not really. None of us can. That’s the great joke. It’s all gone. Everything. It was just a dream on Bayou Teche. Parti avec la vent.
I could hear the paper on his cigarette crisp when he inhaled. I suspected one day cigarettes would kill him. But that was not the feat I had as I looked at my father. No one had to convince me about the reality of hell. It wasn’t a fiery pit. It lived and thrived in the human breast and consumed its host from night to morning. (220- 221)
Similarly, Broussard is able to paint a sympathetic picture of the mother who finds it within herself to champion a specially-abled boy and confront a pedophile and who constantly and consistently offers unconditional love for her son as she wrestles with her own demons.
My mother’s greatest fear was that someone would look at her and see an impoverished little girl standing barefoot by herself in front of a house that was hardly more than a shack.
. . . .
Her vocabulary for depression and her justification for the pharmaceuticals were endless. Her contradictions were also. She was physically brave and did no fear disease, mortality, or notions about perdition. She believed most men were meretricious by nature, yet these were the same avuncular men who usually ended up victimizing her (307).
Burke captures this change-point in Southern and American history poignantly and precisely. His novel is as accurate, visual, and visceral as the television series Mad Men, which picks up right at the time Broussard’s narrative leaves off. This is an American masterpiece, nostalgic noir without sentimentality.
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
Merry Byrd is the founder and editor of NOLA DIASPORA. She teaches composition, women’s studies, and environmental humanities at Virginia State University and serves as book review editor for the journal FEMSPEC. Her most recent non-fiction essay “Floods” appears in Situate.