In his most ambitious novel, master storyteller James Lee Burke tells a classic American story through one man’s unforgettable life—connecting a fateful encounter with Bonnie and Clyde to the Battle of the Bulge to the merciless frontier justice of the Wild West.
It is 1934 and the Depression is bearing down when sixteen-year-old Weldon Avery Holland happens upon infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after one of their notorious armed robberies. A confrontation with the outlaws ends as Weldon puts a bullet through the rear window of Clyde’s stolen automobile.
Ten years later, Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland and his sergeant, Hershel Pine, escape certain death in the Battle of the Bulge and encounter a beautiful young woman named Rosita Lowenstein hiding in a deserted extermination camp. Eventually, Weldon and Rosita fall in love and marry and, with Hershel, return to Texas to seek their fortunes. There, they enter the domain of jackals known as the oil business.
They meet Roy Wiseheart—a former Marine aviator haunted with guilt for deserting his squadron leader over the South Pacific—and Roy’s wife Clara, a vicious anti-Semite who is determined to make Weldon and Rosita’s life a nightmare. It will be the frontier justice upheld by Weldon’s grandfather, Texas lawman Hackberry Holland, and the legendary antics of Bonnie and Clyde that shape Weldon’s plans for saving his family from the evil forces that lurk in peacetime America and threaten to destroy them all.
IT WAS THE year none of the seasons followed their own dictates. The days were warm and the air hard to breathe without a kerchief, and the nights cold and damp, the wet burlap we nailed over the windows stiff with grit that blew in clouds out of the west amid sounds like a train grinding across the prairie. The moon was orange, or sometimes brown, as big as a planet, the way it is at harvest time, and the sun never more than a smudge, like a lightbulb flickering in the socket or a lucifer match burning inside its own smoke. In better times, our family would have been sitting together on the porch, in wicker chairs or on the glider, with glasses of lemonade and bowls of peach ice cream.
My father was looking for work on a pipeline in East Texas. Maybe he would come back one day. Or maybe not. Back then, people had a way of walking down a tar road and crossing through a pool of heat and disappearing forever. I ascribed the signs of my mother’s mental deterioration to my father’s absence and his difficulties with alcohol. She wore out the rug in her bedroom walking in circles, squeezing her nails into the heels of her hands, talking to her- self, her eyes watery with levels of fear and confusion that nobody could dispel. Ordinary people no longer visited our home.
As a lawman, Grandfather had gone up against the likes of Bill Dalton and John Wesley Hardin, and in 1916, with a group of rogue Texas Rangers, he had helped ambush a train loaded with Pancho Villa’s soldiers. The point is, he wasn’t given to studying on the complexities of mental illness. That didn’t mean he was an ill-natured or entirely uncharitable man, just one who seemed to have a hole in his thinking. He had not been a good father to his children. Through either selfishness or ineptitude, he often left them to their own de- vices, even when they foundered on the wayside. I had never under- stood this obvious character defect in him. I sometimes wondered if the blood he had shed had made him incapable of love.
He hid behind flippancy and cynicism. He rated all politicians “somewhere between mediocre and piss-poor.” His first wife had “a face that could make a freight train turn on a dirt road.” WPA stood for We Piddle Around. If he hadn’t been a Christian, he would have fired the hired help (we no longer had any) and “replaced them with sloths.” The local banker had a big nose because the air was free. Who was my grandfather in actuality? I didn’t have a clue.
It was right at sunset when I looked through the back screen and saw a black automobile, coated with dust and shaped like a shoe box, detour off the road and drive into the woods behind our house. A man wearing a fedora and a white shirt without a tie got out and urinated in front of the headlights. I thought I could hear laughter inside the car. While he relieved himself, he removed his fedora and combed his hair. It was wavy and thick and brown and shiny as polished walnut. His trousers were notched tightly into his ribs, and his cheeks looked like they had been rubbed with soot. These were not uncommon characteristics in the men who drifted here and yon through the American West during the first administration of President Roosevelt.
“Some people must have wandered off the highway onto our road,” I said. “The driver is taking a leak in front of his headlights. His passengers seem to be enjoying themselves.”
Grandfather was sitting at the kitchen table, an encyclopedia open in front of him, his reading glasses on his nose. “He deliberately stood in front of his headlights to make water, so others could watch?”
“I can’t speak with authority about his thought process, since I’m not inside the man’s head,” I replied. I picked up the German binoculars my uncle had brought back from the trenches and focused them on the car. “There’s a woman in the front seat. A second man and another woman are in back. They’re passing a bottle around.”
“Are they wets?”
I removed the binoculars from my eyes. “If wets drive four-door cars.”
“My first wife had a sense of humor like yours. The only time I ever saw her laugh was when she realized I’d developed shingles.”
I focused the binoculars back on the driver. I thought I had seen his face before. I heard Grandfather get up heavily from his chair. He was over six and a half feet tall, and his ankles were swollen from hypertension and caused him to sway back and forth, as though he were on board a ship. Sometimes he used a walking cane, sometimes not. One day he seemed to teeter on the edge of eternity; the next day he was ready to resume his old habits down at the saloon. He had gin roses in his cheeks and skin like a baby’s and narrow eyes that were the palest blue I had ever seen. Sometimes his eyes did not go with his face or his voice; the intense light in them could make other men glance away. “Let’s take a walk, Satchel Ass,” he said.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that name.”
“You’ve got a butt on you like a washtub.”
“There’s a bullet hole in the rear window of the car,” I said, looking through the binoculars again. “My butt doesn’t resemble a washtub. I don’t like you talking to me like that, Grandfather.”
“Wide butts and big hips run in the Holland family. That’s just something to keep in mind as you get older. It’s a family trait, not an insult. Would you marry a woman who looks like a sack of Irish potatoes?”