Review: Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Wayfaring StrangerJames Lee Burke has been writing for almost half a century, but WAYFARING STRANGER is my first, and the highest praise I can offer is that it will not be my last. What a stunning introduction to Burke’s prose, a novel that mixes several potent ingredients into one hell of a tasty dish: a sprawling historical saga across decades of American history, a love story that never wallows in cliché, and a page-turner of the best variety; the kind that doesn’t rely on cheap thrills and exaggerated violence, rather a constant sense of foreboding. At its core, though, WAYFARING STRANGER is a novel about the good and evil in men’s hearts – and how events can force even the greatest of men to overlook their values, and the impact our past can have on our futures. When you push a good man into a corner, how does he respond? 

Burke weaves several characters into his narrative. World War II veterans Weldon Holland and Hershel Pine enter the oil business after the war, utilizing German technology; a money-making business that’s bursting oppressive forces who want to see them fail. Then there’s Rosita Lowenstein, Holland’s wife, who Holland and Pine found in a deserted extermination camp, and is tarnished with the same brush as her communist family; a stain that’s impossibly to fully remove. Finally, Linda Gail, Pine’s wife, and blossoming Hollywood Actress, who combats demons of her own as she attempts to navigate the insane world of the stars. WAYFARING STRANGER paints extensive portraits of these characters as elements of their lives overlap, their stories eventually culminating in the novels’ pulse-pounding conclusion.

WAYFARING STRANGER is epic in scope; a novel that traverses decades, spotlighting the life and times of a man with seemingly infallible moral convictions, whose entire life is founded on one moment, from his childhood, when he fired at the rear window of Bonnie and Clyde’s absconding vehicle. There’s poetry in James Lee Burke’s prose, evident in Holland’s descriptions of his wife, Rosita, and the love he feels for his grandfather, a hard man, whose gruffness he has grown to appreciate. This is a powerful story, a true character study, and one that demands re-reading. WAYFARING STRANGER isn’t merely a great love story, a great historical saga, or a fast-paced thriller: it’s a wonderful novel, period. I couldn’t tell you if it’s one of James Lee Burke’s best, but if it’s not, my goodness, we’re going to need an amended star-rating system.

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