MORE GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER
Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke
So. I have to ask myself the question: what rock have I been hiding under all these years that I could remain uninterested in a superlative writer who has now completed thirty thrillers? Because I thought he was probably the same as all the other formulaic writers, that’s why. Well, shame on me.
James Lee Burke’s literary reputation is so secure that he hardly needs an endorsement from a Library blog in New Zealand, but that won’t stop me from singing his praises all the same. I’m just vexed at myself for not reading his books sooner. Fortunately, ‘Feast Day of Fools’ despite being the latest in a series of stories about Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland (yep, that’s truly his name), is easily read as a stand-alone novel, for Mr Burke’s skill is such that he can bring the first-time reader (me!) up to speed with action from previous books, introducing it so seamlessly that I never felt mad as I usually do, for approaching the series from the wrong end.
Sheriff Holland is an old man now, nursing much sorrow and many regrets, but still functioning superbly as the guardian of the law in a small West Texas town close to the Mexican border. He has a loyal staff consisting of deputies Pam Tibbs, whose devotion is a thin disguise for the great love she feels for him; and R.C. Givens, whose frail-looking physique belies his resourcefulness and intelligence - and let us not forget switchboard operator Maydeen Stolz, whose vulgarity offends the Sheriff daily.
Crime in the area is usually connected with the Wetbacks, those hapless Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande, then pay ‘Coyotes’, unscrupulous guides, to help them find menial work in Texas. They are illegal aliens, willing to do anything to make a living, for compared to their miserable lives in Mexico the United States is still the Promised Land. However, when the remains of a tortured man are found by a local alcoholic and reported to the sheriff, a chain of events is started that leads not just to wets and coyotes, but to defence contractors and organised crime, an ex-C.I.A operative and the shadowy pursuers of them all, the F.B.I.
Oh, everyone gets a mention in Mr Burke’s complicated plot and there are baddies of truly Olympian proportions, but Hackberry’s true nemesis from previous encounters is Preacher Jack Collins, a messianic, scripture-quoting killer whose favourite weapon is a machine gun. Preacher Jack is a one-stop-shop of high intelligence, hatred, malice and forward planning, and he and the sheriff have unfinished business to conduct: every now and then Jack rings Hackberry to remind him, to keep him on the back foot – and these little exchanges are gems. Mr Burke writes scintillating, witty dialogue, so good that despite the fact that some of the characters reach caricature proportions, they are continually redeemed by their folksy, down to earth humour and logic.
Sadly, logic is jettisoned in the last chapter of this otherwise fine story: after a gun battle that should have left no-one alive, Hackberry and his allies march off into the desert and imminent rescue, even though they are all leaking gallons of blood and shouldn’t be able to walk a single step. That’s stretching the reader’s credulity to snapping point!
But let us not forget Mr Burke’s wonderful descriptions of the natural world around him: he populates his stark and beautiful landscapes with roiling purple clouds, fiery sunsets and the vastness of desert spaces. Until I read this book I didn’t know a butte from a banana or a mesa from my elbow but I’m happy to say that I NOW HAVE THE PICTURE, thanks to Mr. Burke’s marvellous imagery. He has the singular ability to make the reader examine crime in all its guises, too - not just the who-done-it variety, but the greater crimes that start wars, the terrible crimes that wars unleash, and the criminals who set it all in motion. Highly recommended.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
This is a five-star story. It ably illustrates many of the things I said about war in the last paragraph of the above review, this time from the perspective of the last, most unfortunate link in the chain: the soldier who must kill or be killed in order to ‘win the War on Terror’ – to ‘Keep Our Country Free’, and to ‘Kill Them before they Kill Us.’
The myriad reasons for the War in Iraq are baldly displayed here, and it’s up to the reader to decide what opinion to have, but it’s obvious that Ben Fountain (at least in this book) is no friend of the Bush administration. The sending of invading troops to Iraq ostensibly to search for the mythical ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ is nothing more than a cover-up to gain eventual control of the oil supply – that’s what the surviving members of Bravo squad think, but they signed up (for all sorts of different reasons); they’re in it for the long haul, and they’ll fight. That is what they have been trained to do; it’s their job; and they’ll do it until the end – either the end of their service, or the end of their lives.
One such soldier is Billy Lynn: he’s nineteen years old and was given the choice of the army or jail when he was eighteen. He trashed his beloved sister’s pussy-boyfriend’s ‘pussy car Saab’ because the pussy dropped her three weeks after she had a near-fatal accident. Billy chose the army and, after Basic training was sent to Iraq to join Bravo squad, a time of crushing boredom, alleviated only by the huge fear everyone felt on going on patrol, an exercise ordered almost more often than they can stand by Staff-Sergeants Dime and Shroom, firm friends who served together in Afghanistan: these men understand all too well how important it is to face and conquer the fear. Eventually, the squad’s mettle is tested in a blazing firefight with insurgents: two of their number die but the insurgents are wiped out and the whole bloody conflagration is filmed by a Fox crew embedded with Bravo; the three-minute film clip goes viral, becomes a YouTube sensation, and before anyone can say ‘Cheney and Halliburton’ the survivors of Bravo squad are brought back to the States for a two week victory tour after receiving medals for bravery from President Bush at the White House.
The men are intelligent enough to know that they are the Poster Boys for a huge propaganda drive to keep Americans’ hope and patriotism alive after years of The War on Terror, which seems to have slowed considerably in momentum lately – but who cares? To sleep in a clean bed again, to not have to fight king-size insects for food and bedspace – and to see all those fine women again: oh, those dudes are in HEAVEN.
And even better still: a movie producer has joined the tour. He’s a high-powered, fast-talking dealmaker with a mighty reputation, and he wants to make a film of the Bravos, with big-name stars playing them; big names are quoted constantly (Billy is dismayed to hear that Hilary Swank is interested in playing him. HUH???) and the magical figure of one hundred thousand dollars is quoted as a payment to each Bravo for the rights to his character. The future – if they all survive, for they are to be sent back to Iraq when the tour is over – looks rosy indeed. And if they don’t survive, why their wives and mommas will have a nest-egg! They think.
Most of the action of this great story occurs on the last day of their tour; the Bravos are the guests of honour at Texas Stadium for a huge Thanksgiving Day football match between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears: they meet the Cheerleaders! (Billy falls instantly in love with one) They meet the football team! (Behemoths to a man.) They meet the owner and his fabulously rich pals! (And their plastic fantastic wives.) And they are turned into a support act to Destiny’s Child! - the halftime high-end musical attraction, an experience none of their training has prepared them for.
And they realise, belatedly, that the bravery for which they are so loudly and publicly praised means nothing when confronted with Big Money and the Art of the Deal: heroes are there to be screwed, just like everyone else. Disillusioned, weary and disgusted with their brush with fame, the Bravos and Billy prepare to go back to war, no longer convinced that they are fighting for high ideals, but firm in their conviction that they will fight to the death – for each other. ‘We happy few, we Band of Brothers’. Shakespeare, as always, had it right, and so does Ben Fountain: he has written a wonderful book, a darkly humorous, ruthlessly honest portrayal of a great nation under siege, hostage to The War on Terror and Nine Eleven, and the way that its politicians, citizens – and soldiers faced the threat. This is a must-read – don’t miss it.