Missoula author James Lee Burke is known for his eloquently gritty writing. Dig anywhere within the depths of his expansive catalogue and you will find a treasure trove of engaging musings on good, evil, morality and everything in between. I have often referred to Burke’s writing as Faulkner-esque in its beauty, its feel on the ear like a southern breeze blowing through magnolia blossoms and oil fields.
Over the past few books Burke has released, there has been a slight shift in the subject matter. Veering away from his immensely popular Dave Robicheaux mysteries, Burke’s more recent releases have focused on the lesser known Holland family. “The Jealous Kind” is the third installment in what has now become known as "The Holland Family Saga."
Seventeen and in love, Aaron Holland Broussard has a knack for finding himself involved in dangerous and harried situations stemming from the best of intentions. His sweetheart, Valerie Epstein, has just ended her relationship with one of Galveston, Texas’ wealthiest sons. Aaron’s best friend, Saber, is a boy who has a less than desirable family life and has yet to realize the severe consequences of his teenage actions and decisions. Valerie, Saber and Aaron find themselves quickly in the muck with powerful and connected gangsters of varying levels within the mob. “The Jealous Kind” is told through Aaron’s voice as he muses over his own coming of age amongst drama and danger.
Burke can’t be placed directly into the category of mystery writer, particularly when considering “The Jealous Kind” and its two predecessors, “Wayfaring Stranger” and “House of the Rising Sun.” The Holland Family books are mysteries, of a sort. They are surefire page-turners with intrigue and doubt that make the reader wonder with excitement about the characters’ paths and how the webs they weave will unwind. These novels, and “The Jealous Kind” in particular, are time pieces that defy the idealization of previous generations. Burke pulls no punches and hides no secrets. Texas in 1952 is not a paragon of sock-hops and innocence. With his trademark grit and graceful language, he places the reader in the real world, perhaps one in which Mr. Burke personally experienced many of the events that occur in the novel.
I read this book as a response to the late Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” the much-contended sequel to the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Characters fight with moral dilemmas, struggling with race and class relations. Fans of “Mockingbird” will fall easily for Aaron’s father, a morally just, but ardently real, man in the vein of Atticus Fitch. Much like Harper Lee’s novel, Burke presents the reader with the reality of the time. The people Aaron interacts with are not extraordinary. Sure, gangsters and bad guys are present within the text, but the real eye-openers are the neighbors, family friends, and teachers that may or may not be involved in nefarious business, normalized racism and classist behaviors.
While reading, I often wondered if this particular book leaned more toward memoir than novel. Burke writes in an oral story-teller’s voice, often interjecting a casual "let me tell you how that time really was" that implies first-person experience. The stories seem so distant, so extreme, that it makes it hard to swallow that a gentle, kind man such as Burke had experienced even a portion of the episodes in “The Jealous Kind.” Yet, there is a continual reminder throughout that this is real, these incidences are how it was. Then again, given current events, perhaps Burke is spending the time reminding us of how it was in order to also remind us of how it is.