Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke. Pocket Books. Crime Fiction. 2011. Paperback $10.
I broke from tradition; I began reading another series by JLB. Feast Day of Fools is the second novel featuring the South Texas sheriff, Hackberry Holland. The first novel, Rain Gods, I have yet to read. The local book slinger had only this paperback available.
Those readers familiar with JLB’s series of novels surrounding the life and times of Lousiana sheriff Dave Robicheaux will feel right home with “Hack” Holland. Burke’s prose is as immersive and rich, and his characters as deep and robust, as any New Orleans jambalaya. The geography of Hack’s environment may be different than Dave’s but the atmosphere of southern Texas and the intricacies of a southern sheriff’s relationship don’t seem to differ all that much.
In FDF, the movement of illegal aliens across the U.S./Mexico border provides the backdrop for a murder, kidnapping, more murder, and torture. A quiet woman, Anton Ling, an immigrant herself from China, supports a modern-day underground railroad for families of illegals moving across the unforgiving arid landscape of the Chihuahuan desert into Texas. Known as “La Magdalena” by those looking for aid, she has a unique history. Born in China, she “had lived through Japanese incendiary raids and the massacre of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops” according the local coroner.
Ms. Ling makes Hack uncomfortable. For him, her Asian ancestry affects him more than he would like. She reminds him of his deceased wife. She reminds him of his time spent in Vietnam. And she works intimately with illegals who themselves attract degenerates from both Mexico and the U.S. From Mexico, “coyotes,” people who make it their business to move people across the border, treat the fellow Mexicans like cattle. From the U.S., the borderlands attract so-called patriots who sit in the hills with rifles and scopes, taking potshots at the migrants like shooting prairie dogs in Wyoming. The desert wilderness of southern Texas draws an unsavory lot.
From this unsavory lot, Reverend Cody Daniels appears. The Rev. Daniels is probably on the lam, running from law enforcement who would like to question him about an abortion clinic bombing on the East Coast. Rev. Daniels also falls among those who would like the salvation of illegal aliens to arrive in the form of .307 bullet from long-range.
From Hack’s past, an apparition of Death appears to rise again, totting a Thompson machine gun, meting out his own form of salvation and justice. Preacher Jack Collins had died long ago, or so Hack thought. But when bodies begin showing up blown apart from .45 rounds he suspects otherwise.
From these two characters, Feast Day of Fools derives its name. The term comes from a period from about the 5th century and lasting until about the 16th century, when the poor and low-class elements of society would don costumes of social and religious elite and mock them in public places. Both the Reverend and the Preacher hold themselves in high regard, pure and resolute against the sins committed around them, all the while engaging in sordid and murderous actions of their own.
JLB’s tale is not of illegal immigration, though. A former boxer and a drunk, Danny Boy Lorca, witnesses the torture and death of a man in the desert by presumed coyotes. The dead man’s companion manages to escape, eventually being taken in and befriended by Preacher Jack. The escaped man and his companion were being moved along the underground railroad with the intent of being sold to al-Qaeda.
The man, Noie Barnum, is an engineer. In his head he keeps the plans to a sophisticated drone, and Krill, the lead “coyote” has plans to sell Barnum, in some form or fashion, to cohorts in Mexico, who will then pass Mr. Barnum along to al-Qaeda. However, Barnum’s escape and his subsequent guardianship by Preacher Jack, create a pile of dead bodies, torture, and anguish Hack and his deputy Pam Tibbs find themselves ill-prepared to handle. But, the FBI agents who arrive to assist in the apprehension of Noie Barnum don’t fare so well, either.
The geographic tapestry woven by Lee presents an immediate image of the inhospitable Chihuahuan desert. Lee does an impeccable job of not telling us where Hack lives and works. Unlike the Robicheaux novels where I can use Google or Bing maps and follow Dave’s detective work from town-to-town, Hack’s geography is more vague. Lee references places, like Coahuila, Mexico, and Brewster County, Texas (the largest county in Texas, 3x’s the size of the State of Delaware), and other familiar cities of San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. I still have little idea of Hack’s town, though. Lee gives directions based on businesses, the “town square,” and such but never comes right out and says something to the effect, “Hack wheeled his patrol car around Webster’s county courthouse and turned south on Rt 1429.” Those of us who have grown accustomed to or familiar with southern Louisiana geography, of Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya River west of New Orleans, may find themselves frustrated not being able to enjoy the same level of geographic discovery in FDF.
James Lee Burke, in spite of the shortage of some geographic places, still includes geography in his characters backgrounds. We learn about Hack’s stint in Vietnam, for instance. When Hack gets his first phone call from Preacher Jack, we get a sense of what Jack’s voice sounds like:
The accent is what a linguist would call southern midlands, a dialect common on the plains west of Fort Worth and up through Oklahoma, the pronunciations attenuated, as thought the speaker doesn’t have enough oxygen in his blood. This speaker sounded like he had put a teaspoon of metal filings in his morning coffee.
When R.C., one of Hack’s deputies, is kidnapped and driven to Mexico, we learn he has been taken to Couhuila, Mexico. Couhuila is a Mexican state, its 3rd largest. I could find no specific town named “Couhuila,” which doesn’t mean one does not exist, I simply could find no town using Google maps. Sometimes, writers will take real places and rename them, to protect the innocent, I suppose. If I had to guess, the story takes place somewhere in the neighborhood of Cuidad Acuna / Del Rio, Texas, but I could be way off. Or, perhaps between Cuidad Negraz and Carrizo Springs, Texas. Again, a guess.
Readers of Dave Robicheaux novels might be a little put-off by the level of violence in Feast Day of Fools. Having read several Robicheaux novels I was a little surprised by the brutality exhibited by some characters. But, the Russian mob does rear its ugly head and the Russian mob is no-joke in real life. This is not a book one would read to their kids at bedtime. Actually, none of JLB’s books are good for youth, at least none I’ve read, and I wouldn’t allow my kids, if I had kids, to read them until they were juniors or seniors in high school. After that, not much I could do about it, anyway.
James Lee Burke, as I have often said in previous reviews, is a brilliant storyteller. What Louis L’amour, Zane Grey, and Larry McMurtry have accomplished in the Western genre, and Ray Bradbury has accomplished across many genres, James Lee Burke has brought to southern Crime Fiction. His characters are real and flawed; his heroes have dark veins of malice, and his villains often have linings of ethics and morals, albeit thin.
Would I recommend Feast Day of Fools? Sure. JLB has written a captivating story which will pull you along, like it or not, perhaps like the heartless coyote dragging people through the desert.