The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke

It’s summertime in Houston, 1952,  and the 17-year old first-person Aaron Holland Broussard and his best friend Saber Bledsoe doing what kids do in the summer.   Aaron is actually a rather nice young man, smart and generally well- behaved although from a troubled family.  Saber on the other hand has some rough edges and a chip on his shoulder  big enough for him to attract the attention of various elements in the city from the teachers to the police, the local young hoodlums and their big-time daddies.

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The Jealous Kind 
by James Lee Burke
Aug 30,  2016 / 400 pages
Rating:   A++  /  literary crime
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With a huge thank you to Simon and Schuster for allowing me to preview and review this book!)   

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One night Aaron is stirred to make some chivalrous moves to protect the beautiful Valerie Epstein from the anger of Grady Harrelson,  her rich, bad-boy boyfriend.  Aaron for some reason unbeknownst even to himself,  sticks up for her – calls Grady out on his behavior.  Grady gets a bit irritated, but Valerie apparently appreciates it a lot.  Grady doesn’t let things like this slide easily and his father is far, far more dangerous.   That’s okay  –  Saber has Aaron’s back.   Yeah? – This one may be beyond Saber’s skills.

Meanwhile a very obnoxious teacher is looking for troubled boys to send to some kind of “camp,”   Grady and his little gang get Aaron and Saber under suspicion for various things including the murder of a young Mexican girl.  Valerie’s father has some issues with Grady’s father but Aaron has his own link to a fringe element of mobsters.   And so it goes.   After Grady’s car is stolen, the big baddies show up and a far more intense type of criminal behavior is involved. Yup –  Aaron has a summer of growing up.

Although the narrative gets seriously gritty and late-night intense, it never turns into a page-turner in the “thriller” sense of the term because Burke’s style is too complex and involved,  too beautifully literary.   But rest assured the tension is all there – Burke is a master story-teller.

The characters are all wonderfully realized evoking a sense of time and place as well as individuals caught in the traps of life,  love, violence, family, etc.   The three women are solidly articulated but possibly more differentiated than the three incredible women in Burke’s prior novel,  House of the Rising Sun (2015), about Hackberry Holland and set in the wild west of the early 20th century.

The Hollands have their own issues. Aaron is the grandson Hackberry Holland who was the cousin of Billy Bob Holland and others in the family who show up in the various novels.   These are all  descendants of the original Son Holland and the series goes back to touch on the aftermath of the Civil War.   ** Each novel is perfect as a stand-alone!! **   I’ve read three of the four novels – only missing the first one (which is now on my wish list):  http://jamesleeburke.com/books/the-holland-family/   – I can’t pick a favorite between these –

In The Jealous Kind Burke perfectly captures the teenage-side in collision with the ugly and treacherous underbelly of Houston circa 1952  – the music,  the cars,  the clothes,  the hair, the drive-ins, the lingo against the backdrop of the Korean War.  But he never overdoes the ambiance or the extraordinary literary passages.  The story itself stays front and center – a good kid’s falling in love while coming of age in a very troubled time and place.

And every once in awhile,  just the right once in awhile,  there’s the flash and thunder in the delicious sentences of the philosophical and Faulknerian Burke we know and love from the Robicheaux novels.