Review of Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke, an unabashed mystery writer, has been compared with Steinbeck, Faulkner and McCarthy. A mystery novel author achieving literary standing? I couldn’t argue with that. I love Burke’s writing, especially his Dave Rubicheaux novels set in Louisiana. What sets Burke apart, aside from sharply etched characters, crackling dialogue and intricate plots, is the way he sets the mood of a scene. He takes you there and rubs your nose in it. You can feel it, smell it, and taste it, whether it’s a warm night on Bayou Teche or in the case of Feast Day of Fools, a sweltering afternoon on the southwest Texas border. Another thing about Burke—his novel The Lost Get-Back Boogey was rejected 111 times before finally being published and then nominated for a Pulitzer. That’s inspiration!

Feast Day is a big, ambitious book featuring Hackberry Holland, a seventy something ex-alcoholic and whoremonger, who’s Sheriff of a small Texas border town. Hack is ably assisted by Pam Tibbs, a tough, fire breathing younger deputy whose affection for her boss causes him to vacillate between a father figure and lover. The area around their small town teams with bad guys—Mexican drug dealers, Russian mobsters, a crooked politician, and a psychopathic serial killer who joyously dispatches his victims with a Thompson submachine gun. There’s a beautiful and mysterious Chinese woman, too, whose running a kind of underground railroad for illegal immigrants. Wait, there’s more—a disaffected Homeland Security agent who just happens to have the plans for the Predator Drone in his head is wandering around in the desert. You guessed it, all the bad guys want to catch the agent so they can sell the secrets to, you guessed it, al-Qaeda.

So, if you’re looking for a credible, realistic plot , Feast Day will probably leave you wanting. It certainly did me. It was as if Burke tossed every embodiment of what’s wrong with this world into his West Texas setting and set them upon, not only Hackberry and Tibbs, but each other as well. All hell breaks loose on the brooding, lighting-swept desert. Burke handles the action with a deftness that doesn’t disappoint. After all, the man’s an acknowledged master at depicting action.

But, no offense, James, the absurdity of the plot kept getting in my way.

Feast Day works much better if taken as a kind of meditation on the struggle between good and evil in this world. Hackberry’s a flawed man whose life changed irreparably after spending 3 years in a Chinese POW camp during the Korean War. (Incidentally, this could make the character more like an octogenarian, but Burke is silent on Hack’s actual age.) His spirit broken and his optimism shattered, he turns to alcohol and prostitutes. The book begins decades later. Hack is ashamed of his past, but determined to live out his life with as much purpose and dignity as he can muster. The youthful, vibrant Pam Tibbs acts as his foil, pulling him back from extreme acts and reminding him life is more than duty.

In one scene, Hackberry contemplates the “sordid behavior and human exploitation that seemed to become more and more visible in the world as he aged.” He decides that “The same players were always there, regardless of the historical era, and the ones we heeded most were those who despoiled the earth and led us into wars and provided us with justification whenever we felt compelled to commit unconscionable acts against our fellow man.” Can a single man like Hackberry Holland, a man scarred and battered by life, stand up to the “players” and stop the decent? Burke’s answer is a resounding yes. We’re all flawed and imperfect, he seems to say, but we can achieve a modicum of redemption by taking action. And in the final scene, Hackberry doesn’t go it alone. The much younger Pam Tibbs has his back, a comforting thought for an aging hero.

Burke has said he thinks Feast Day of Fools is his finest work. It is certainly his most ambitious in terms of thematic scope and richness. But the left hemisphere of my brain demands a plot I can believe in. The two are not mutually exclusive.