This time, it's personal

James Lee Burke tells a different type of story in Wayfaring Stranger



Photo courtesy of Frank Veronsky
  • Photo courtesy of Frank Veronsky
Before James Lee Burke even sits down for an interview, the stories begin. He’s talking about school shootings and Joyce Brothers and suicide and generational nostalgia and Benny Goodman. Over the course of an hour, once the interview starts in earnest, the conversation ranges from Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s change-up to rapper Snoop Dogg. Burke references specific scenes from The Godfather, Gone with the Wind and The Sting. He quotes social philosopher and author Eric Hoffer, William Faulkner, Voltaire, George Orwell and a censor at the Texas State Penitentiary who once redacted one of his novels for a death-row inmate. Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of speaking with Burke for any significant amount of time knows that this is what you get—a sweeping, high energy, highly engaging talk that’s punctuated with cited sources, personal anecdotes and pointed opinions.

In other words, he talks like he writes, with a rhythm and detail and lyricism that’s made him a regular best-seller over the course of a career that’s spanned more than a half-century.

But for all of the stories Burke’s told in interviews or fit on the pages of his 36 published books, there’s something different about his latest novel, Wayfaring Stranger. Burke, who lives outside of Missoula, acknowledges as much. Whenever the conversation shifts to the book, he sits forward, lowers his voice and sounds less like he’s serving up a colorful story and more like he’s making a confession.

“There are many things I know about in my life and witnessed in my life where I had to wait over 50 years to write about, you see,” he says. “I published my first story in 1956, so what is that? Fifty-eight years? I had to wait that amount of time to write this book because too many people would have been injured.

“It’s the most biographical book I’ve done,” he continues. “It’s different from anything I’ve ever written.”

The first 100 pages read unlike anything else by Burke. It starts with a young Texas boy, Weldon Holland, having a chance run-in with Bonnie and Clyde. (Longtime Burke fans will recognize Weldon’s grandfather, Hackberry, as the character in Feast Day of Fools and two other novels). The second chapter jumps approximately 10 years to Weldon’s harrowing experiences in World War II, where he ends up behind enemy lines. The story eventually settles in the postwar South, during America’s “Golden Age,” as Weldon and a fellow veteran set up an oil pipeline company amid the industry’s culture of corruption. From there, Wayfaring Stranger picks up some of Burke’s usual components—good versus pure evil, shadowy moguls pulling strings to keep down hard-working common folk—but it still appears to hold something more personal than, say, the regular Dave Robicheaux novel.

Burke dedicated Wayfaring Stranger to his “beloved first cousin,” Weldon Benbow “Buddy” Mallette, whom Burke calls “the hero of the family.” A lot of the book’s protagonist is based on Buddy’s true war record. Burke says other parts of the book are from his own time working on oil rigs or from his father’s stories as a pipeliner. He says he wanted Wayfaring Stranger to capture what it was like being one of the last honest oil men in an industry now dominated by “the worst sons of bitches in the world.”

“What people do not understand about the oil and natural gas business is that the grunts on the ground, those women and men, are the best people I’ve ever known,” he says. “They’re in the book. I worked with them. They’re like the Roman soldiers on the edge of the empire. They’ve been everywhere.”

More than anything, though, Wayfaring Stranger is about a time of great change in America. Industry was booming. Hollywood was huge. And certain values were being compromised to make it all happen.

“It was the awakening of a new American empire, for good and bad,” Burke says. “A lot of it was good, but a lot of it was bad—and a lot of that is in the book.”

Such big themes allow Burke ample room to get away from talking about the book during an interview and get back to telling stories. Hence the mention of classic movies and musical greats, current events and political commentary. (His views on Dick Cheney and the oil and natural gas industry are a whole other article.) But again, when the conversation shifts back to his family and Wayfaring Stranger, Burke’s demeanor changes. He’s still telling stories, but he’s particular about certain details.

Like the time he wrote Buddy, his beloved cousin, a victory letter toward the end of the war. It was on special stationary, with a “V” on it, and he wrote it shortly after Buddy had sent a letter home describing the unrelenting German artillery barrages and how he just wanted one minute of reprieve.

“I wrote him this letter and about three or four weeks later, right before V-E Day, I got this box delivered by the postal service with a GI or military return address,” Burke says. “I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited. I opened it and it was an Italian Carcano Mannlicher rifle. In the middle of all that, Weldon sent me that rifle. I was just a little boy.

“My father, he looked at it and he says, ‘Did you ask him for that?’ And I didn’t remember then and I don’t remember now if I did or not,” Burke continues. “I said, ‘I don’t think so, Daddy,’ and he just looks at me and says, ‘You know, Weldon’s busy fighting a war.’ It was the greatest thing. I couldn’t believe it. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Burke pauses a second at the memory. While he was talking, he started to hold his hands out in front of him, as if he was cradling the rifle the same way he did the day it arrived in the mail. He looks up, puts his hands back by his side and snaps back to his train of thought.

“But you know, that model rifle is the exact same one Oswald used,” he says, referring to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “It was for that reason I never believed he was the lone shooter. You see, that rifle …” And the stories continue.

James Lee Burke reads from Wayfaring Stranger at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 15, at 7 p.m.

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