Magnum Opus: (plural: magna opera, also opus magnum / opera magna), from the Latin meaning “great work,” refers to the largest, and perhaps the best, greatest, most popular, or most renowned achievement of a writer, artist, or composer.
Or, to put it more succinctly, if James Lee Burke worked his magic with a paintbrush, Feast Day of Fools would be the Sistine Chapel of his novels. Yep, it’s that good. I can’t say whether the story took him four years to write or not, but the end result was the same as Michelangelo’s — perfectly stunning.
I’ve read recently where a couple of reviewers have compared Burke to Cormac McCarthy, particularly his No Country For Old Men. Well, both stories share a deep southwest Texas locale and both deal in the darkness of a man’s heart; I would go a step further and say Burke’s newest book might have more in common with Joseph Conrad. Like the evolution of Conrad’s writings, Burke, too, has entered a higher stage with Feast Day of Fools.
I am a long-time fan of James Lee Burke and feel like his Louisiana anti-hero detective, Dave Robicheaux, is my personal friend. But even your mama’s tried and true favorite fried chicken recipe would get old if that’s all you ever ate. Luckily for us fans, we also have Sheriff Hackberry Holland to keep our Burke cravings at bay.
Feast Day of Fools is set in the Texas southwest, near the border of Mexico, and is the third Burke novel featuring Sheriff “Hack” Holland, a Korean veteran and a descendant of a long line of Texas lawmen. Readers first met Holland in Lay Down My Sword and Shield, and then again in Rain Gods. Back again, too, is one of Burke’s weirdest and creepiest villains, Preacher Jack Collins. But the badness doesn’t stop with Collins; there’s Krill, a mercenary soldier gone off the deep end, Negrito, an illiterate psychopath, and the Reverend Cody Daniels, a man broken by the system and finding redemption and revenge with a bible and a gun. All fatally flawed, all on their own crazy mission of misplaced loyalties and superstitions.
A sadistic murder/mutilation in the desert, a missing FBI informant, drug smugglers, and gun runners are the bones of the story, along with an enigmatic and mysterious Chinese woman named Anton Ling, called “La Magdalena” by the Hispanic locals. Ling has her own war-torn past and is mending her soul by helping illegals from Mexico find safe passage into the states.
Franz Kafka may be the allegory king, but Burke’s use of symbolism makes you catch your breath and hold it for long seconds while you reread a passage just because it is so ripe and full; to interrupt that emotional flow with the mechanics of breathing would lessen it’s impact.
I held my breath a lot while reading Feast Day of Fools. My trusty yellow highlighter used for keeping tabs on quotable passages I simply must remember had to be relinquished lest I ended up with entire pages colored yellow.
Just to give you a tiny taste and whiff of Burke’s ability to make the nature of place almost a separate character of its own: “The night air was dense with an undefined feral odor, like cougar scat and a sun-bleached carcass and burnt animal hair and water that had gone stagnant in a sandy drainage traced with the crawl lines of reptiles.”
The gritty and sprawling desert countryside of the Texas/Mexico border is the perfect artist’s canvas for Burke’s biggest novel. And unlike Pope Julius the Second’s (played by Rex Harrison) frustrated lament regarding Michelangelo’s painting in The Agony and the Ecstasy, I hope Burke never “makes an end” to his superb storytelling.