James Lee Burke Drinks Deep from the Heart of Texas
Hackberry Holland pisses me off. As a matter of fact Hack pisses off a lot people, so I doubt seriously he’s worried about some cat down in Miami. Hell, the Texas mouthpiece probably doesn’t even notice just how pissed off he makes me. Why would he? He generally doesn’t notice how pissed off he makes anybody else either. And that includes his close friends and his immediate family. Okay, so he does notice. But he sure doesn’t seem to care a whit.
Then again, Hack’s pretty pissed off his own damn self, so he probably figures he’s got a right to piss off everybody else too. With his near dead drunkenness and his relentless disregard, the man almost reeks of entitlement.
Of course Hack being to the manor born and not wanting anything to do with it or its privileges has a lot to do with his foul disposition. And then there’s that heavy haunting from his days as a North Korean P.O.W. But Hack’s being groomed to inherit his rightful place among the powerful – in his case, as a U.S. Congressman representing the great state of Texas. And Hack’s as excited about that as he about everything else in his guided life. In other words: he isn’t.
But when a former fellow warrior gets in a jam and calls on his ol’ pal, Hack Holland sees something to lash out against. When Hack gets lashed back – and good, he’s got himself a cause.
If I write this implying Hack Holland is a real life anti-hero doing some strange and violent version of the Texas Two-Step, well, you’ll have to blame James Lee Burke. See it was JLB who brought the brawling lone star to life in the best-selling Rain Gods. Little did many folks know though that Hack had appeared long beforehand, in a muddy and bloody book entitled Lay Down My Sword and Shield (Gallery Books $15). That was back in ’71, and despite the good writer’s hitlist status, it’s been pretty much out of print since.
Now it’s back on the racks. Anyone who’s ever read anything by James Lee Burke will know his characters come fitted with torn flesh and broken bone so vivid you too often forget it’s fiction. And if you know this, then you’ll wanna know more, much more, about their origins – and their horrors.
The title to Hack’s first showing is, I imagine, taken from the traditional spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” a song that seems to be at once uplifting and soul crushing. If I get it straight, it’s about the joy of surrender. And if I know anything about surrender; there is no joy in it whatsoever.
But that’s another story, for scholars far more astute than I am. As for James Lee Burke’s Sword and Shield, well, I can tell you this: those depths that you think you’ve descended to go a whole lot deeper than you thought. And down there, at the very bottom, where even a single breath has to be ripped from the earth; that’s where redemption begins. To go there at all is a hell few can fathom. To come back though, kicking and screaming and clawing your way to a place where you can at last hold your head up and look yourself in the eye. That’s heaven.
And here in this story the man who would become Grand Master showed the whole wild world he was already capable of going deep, real deep, and still reaching great heights.