House of the Rising Sun
by James Lee Burke
2015 / 448 pages
read by Will Patton
rating 6 / historical fiction
This may be the most “Arthurian” of all Burke’s works and I’m disappointed. It’s also one of the grittiest books I’ve read since Blood Meridian but has nowhere near the style or substance of anything Cormac McCarthy ever wrote and not even of what Burke himself has written prior.
Burke’s style is as it’s ever been – lush and heavy with rich metaphors, but it seems like that sort of thing is somewhat out of place here on the semi-desert and more at home among the live oak trees and critter infested swamps in southern Louisiana where Burke’s more popular Dave Robicheaux lives and fights gritty crime.
I’m no stranger to gritty and violent books – just recently I read and loved A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and The Cartel by Don Winslow among others. For some reason it’s House of the Rising Sun which is over the top for me. Maybe it’s the lack of originality in the nature of the violence – Hack and the others just beat folks up with their fists or whatever is handy – they shoot at each other and blow up wagons. Only in the trenches of WWI France is it much different and probably only in magnitude.
Also I think there’s insufficient time spent on other themes – the main idea here is man’s dark side in the real world. Much of the story’s background, setting and references are based on historical people and events from the Battle of the Marne to the labor strikes to the criminal gangs around at the time as well as the treatment of the vulnerable women and minorities.
It’s also about the industrialists, landlords, saloon-keepers and war-mongers/whore-mongers who thrive on the misery of others for their own gain – Burke even adds a bit of polemic to the narrative as well as graphic and occasionally explicit scenes. It almost goes without saying that the book is totally over-laden with sexist and racist dialogue (although Hackberry is solidly of 21st century attitudes).
And usually nothing can make Burke come alive like the southern drawl of Will Patton, this time he’s over the top, too. There’s a tinge of the overly dramatic and emotional – too stricken by the events and too whispery and … just too too.
Hackberry Holland (a relative of Billy Bob Holland from that series) is the descendant of Son Holland from Two for Texas and the ancestor of Weldon Holland from Wayfaring Stranger. He’s a Texas Ranger at the turn of the century who seems to be fighting a battle with all the evil forces around as well as his own self-hating and drunken self. He’s not an easily likable guy but his basic intelligence, goodness and sincerity eventually win the reader over.
Hack is basically on a quest to find his estranged son Ishmael (son of Rose) who was wounded in the trenches of France in WWI. But other people want Ishmael, too, for various reasons – to get back at or get to Hack if nothing else. But early on Hack discovered and kept a golden chalice and it seems the owner wants it back. I think this is the major plot point.
Of great note, there are three very strong women in the novel – Beatrice deMolay a brothel owner, Maggie, Hackberry’s almost ex-wife and some time political activist, and Rose, Hackberry’s true love and the mother of his son. These women are central to the plot and involved in much of the action – they each have their own quest and their own reasons for pursuing it. Beatrice wants the chalice, Maggie wants revenge and love, Rose wants her son. And Arnold Beckman, the villain of villains, also wants the chalice – it seems Hackberry got it from his wagon. (This is the Holy Grail folks, the one “Jesus drunk out of.) And Beckman is a very bad man.
Bottom line, House of the Rising Sun seems to be more about the reality of violence and brutality in Texas, in the US and in the world between about 1891 through 1918 than anything. This includes the Mexican War, the trenches of WWI, union strikes, life in the brothels and barrooms, the criminal gangs of the US west and international arms dealers. The main theme is violence in many of its forms and for various reasons – for love, sex, money, vengeance, power, pride, etc. Various sub-themes play out involving love, betrayal, greed and retribution. I’m not sure what the Holy Chalice has to do with it but … there it is. Burke has always written with an Arthurian slant underlying his stories – I guess the opportunity was just too good to resist.