“Another Kind of Eden” by James Lee Burke; Simon & Schuster (243 pages, $27)
When Aaron Broussard rolls out of a freight car with his duffel and his guitar near Denver in 1962, the American West looks almost like heaven to him. A Southerner haunted by his region’s dark history, he’ll discover in “Another Kind of Eden” that the West, like the South, brims with beauty, bounty and blood.
“Another Kind of Eden” is the 41st novel by the mighty James Lee Burke. Best known for his crime fiction series about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, Burke, 84, has also written a series of novels set in the West and based on his own maternal ancestors, the Holland family.
Aaron is one of that family, last seen five years ago in “The Jealous Kind,” set in Houston in 1952, when Aaron was a teenager. “Another Kind of Eden” catches up with him a decade later, rather the worse for wear. He’s lost a teaching job and written “a novel that’s been rejected all over New York.” He’s grappling with the deep damage of his combat service in Korea, a nightmare experience that has left him with what we’d now call PTSD. It has also exacerbated the innate tendency toward violence that he has been struggling to control his whole life (a trait he shares with Robicheaux).
Aaron ends up in Trinidad, a small town near Colorado’s border with New Mexico. “The mountains around Trinidad were the deep metallic blue of a razor blade,” Aaron tells us, “and seemed to rise straight and flat-sided into the clouds. ... Trinidad was a magical city in those days, full of brick streets that climbed into the hills and nineteenth-century saloons where Doc Holliday and the Earps probably drank and slept during the 1880s when they were wiping out the remnants of the Clanton gang.”
That description, with its dance between the harsh beauty of the landscape and the thrum of violence, is vintage Burke. The man can even make a piece of cake ominous: “A glass table was set with a coffee service and a chocolate cake that had already been cut, the white icing cracked by the knife blade, the slices bleeding with torn cherries.”
Aaron finds a job on a well-run farm owned by Jude Lowry, a transplant from Salem, Mass., whom Aaron soon learns to respect. It seems like a good gig, hard honest work in gorgeous open country, until Aaron goes into town one night with his co-workers, the enigmatic Cotton and horndog Spud.
As they’re leaving a restaurant, four strangers ambush them and beat them up, for no reason Aaron can fathom — until one of the deputies called to the scene explains. They’re driving Lowry’s truck, and it has a United Farm Workers bumper sticker, which “probably doesn’t endear you to some people here ‘bouts.”
One of the many ghosts of history that haunts “Another Kind of Eden” is the Ludlow Massacre, a watershed event in the labor movement that took place in 1914 just a few miles from Trinidad. During a coal miners strike, about 1,000 people, miners and their families, were attacked by the Colorado National Guard and private guards hired by the mine owners, including John D. Rockefeller. More than 20 people were killed, including two women and 11 children who were hiding in a pit in the ground and died when the tent above it was set on fire.
The Ludlow Massacre will prove to be important in Aaron’s relationship with Jo Anne McDuffy, a young woman who waits tables at the restaurant where the ambush happened. She’s in her early 20s, trying to support herself while going to junior college, fiercely independent and beautiful, and Aaron falls for her immediately. She’s also a talented artist who is working on a series of paintings based on the massacre, paintings that, she tells Aaron, are intended to free the ghosts of the victims.
He’s troubled, though, by her unclear relationship with one of her professors, the sardonic Henri Devos, who disdains Aaron on sight. Even more troubling is Henri’s retinue of stoned-out runaway teenagers who ramble around the neighborhood in a school bus, mooching off whoever they can, more reminiscent of the Manson Family than a crew of happy hippies.
A more immediate threat is the Vickers family. Father Rueben is a powerful rancher; son Darrel led the ambush on Aaron and his friends. Both have a reputation for serious violence, and Aaron and Jo Anne are in their sights.
In many of Burke’s books, he breaches the curtain between what we think of as the real world and the past, the supernatural, the alternative, whatever lies on the other side. In “Another Kind of Eden” he sweeps that curtain back like a theater impresario, inviting the reader into a potent vision of the battle between good and evil that animates all his fiction.
In the prologue to “Another Kind of Eden,” Burke calls out another great American writer. “Young Goodman Brown wanders these pages. The macabre images, the Gothic characters, the perfume from a poisonous garden could have been created with the ink from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s pen.” It’s an apt comparison — Aaron, like Brown, goes out to meet the devil, confident he’ll survive. But at what cost?