Trapped in a Country Song

James Lee Burke temporarily put his New Orleans bayeaux hero Dave Robicheaux on hold to introduce a new series featuring Billy Bob Holland, the haunted ex-Texas Ranger, now defense attorney in the small Texas town of Deaf Smith.

Holland is a hero in the same mold as Robicheaux, the amalgamation of the strong, silent John Wayne stereotype, with enough contemporary angst to place him firmly in the present. Holland is haunted, literally and figuratively, by L.Q. Navarro, his partner in the rangers, who he accidentally shot and killed while battling drug smugglers in Mexico. This could understandably put a strain on most friendships, but Navarro doesn’t mind being dead. It’s pretty restful to sit around and swap lies without having to bother with mundane facts like earning a living. His role in the book is less avenging spirit and more amiable sidekick.

Rounding out the setup is a son Holland’s never acknowledged, a fine boy named Lucas Smothers whose mother died when he was an infant. He’s being raised by a harsh and hostile stepfather who’s sharecropping on Holland’s land.

Unfortunately for Lucas, he was found passed out near the body of his raped and murdered girlfriend, and Holland works to dig out the truth. Arranged against Holland and Lucas are an array of corrupt, evil and just plain psychopathic characters: the son of the town’s most powerful family who may or may not be involved in the murder, the corrupt sheriff and his deputies and Garland T. Moon, a wandering psychopath dying of cancer, who came back to Deaf Smith on a mission of his own.

Weaved among the contemporary story is the tale of Holland’s great-grandfather, a drunken gunfighter who has since taken the pledge, and his true love, known mostly as the Rose of Cimarron. Everyone once in awhile, Holland takes down the family journal and reads about his ancestor’s battle to win his true love’s heart and remain a peaceable man despite his conflict with the Dalton-Doolin gang, who have taken root in the caves near his farm and are sending property skidding down by robbing trains, shooting innocent women, letting their hogs run free and shooting wild horses for meat.

It’s to Burke’s credit that keeps these plates spinning; one is never confused over who’s talking to whom and what’s happening next. The problem with “Cimarron Rose” lies in the ponderous, carved-in-stone writing, and the utter incomprehensibility of most of the characters’ actions.

Burke has a fine talent for creating memorable images, but he lets his pen wander farther than he intends, leading to some very ludicrous sentences. While Holland recalls his father, a welder who died when the natural-gas pipeline he was in exploded, he reflects, “my mother said his vision had become so bad that clarity of sight came to him only when he struck the stringer-bead rod against the pipe’s metal and saw again the flame that was a pure to him as the cathedral’s bells were to the deaf bellringer Quasimodo.”

That’s mom, all right, always quoting Victor Hugo.

This is a manly man’s book, full of testosterone, piss and vinegar, where it seems like everyone is savaging everyone else. If Holland is not getting beaten up, his horse is getting slashed, his house ransacked, the new sheriff’s deputy who may or may not be fed is getting ambushed, his son’s getting drugged, stripped and dumped at the country club, or any one of a dozen acts of mayhem. Put it to music and you’ve got a country song.

This over-the-top violence will either convince you that you’re reading Deep Literature, or make you break out laughing. You can guess which side I landed on. By the time Garland Moon bursts into a house and torments the owner by twisting his nose, I’m thinking Three Stooges. And the epilogue which ties up the book into a pretty bow and everything is hunky-dory has the feel of a family sitcom.