The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke is one of those rare novels that does far more than tell you a tale. It transports you to another place and time, and then it makes you live the tale. A story of an America reeling from the effects of war and the ravages that it takes on people. A story of small town America and coming of age and the thin line that is the abyss between the haves and the have nots. A tale of crime and murder and right and wrong and innocence so tainted that you might believe it to be lost. And among all this, a tale of first love.
It is 1952 in Texas and the war in Korea goes on. But in Houston life goes on. High school football games, drive-ins, souped up cars and teenagers on the verge of losing their innocence. But behind this facade of normalcy, there is a class war raging on. It is here that Aaron Holland Broussard finds his first true love and a world of corruption and violence beyond his comprehension.
“…I was trying to tell you you’re everything that’s good. That’s why I couldn’t understand how you could go out with Harrelson. I’m not the same since that night at the drive-in.’
‘Don’t talk stupid. People don’t change,’ she said. ‘They grow into what they’ve always been. They just stop pretending, that’s all.’
My head felt small and tight. My cheeks were burning. I couldn’t speak.
‘Some people are the jealous kind,’ she said. ‘They don’t love themselves, so they can’t love or trust anyone else. There’s no way to fix them. That’s why you’re really upsetting me.’
‘I think that’s the worst thing anyone ever said to me…”
When Aaron spots Valerie Epstein arguing with her boyfriend Grady Harrelson, he does the unthinkable. He steps in. But in doing so he sets in motions a class war. In doing so, he finds that he has not only challenged Grady Harrelson, but he has challenged one of the richest families in Texas and the power of the Mob behind it. Now Aaron must find a courage he did not know he possessed.
“…I think his son was after Valerie to prove something to his father. I told the father in front of the Rice Hotel that if either he or his son brought harm to my family, I’d shoot him.’
He drank from his teacup. It looked small in his hand.
‘You said you’d shoot Clint Harrelson?’
‘That was a mistake. I won’t do it again.’
‘I’m not sure I’m following you, sir.’
‘You don’t threaten a man. If he comes at you, you put him out of business. An evil man is not scared by threats. He’s scared when you don’t speak…”
Soon Aaron finds himself at the center of a murder investigation. But as the danger and the blood mounts, so do the tensions between those in power and those that the power oppresses. It is no longer about what is right or wrong, it becomes survival and can Aaron hold on long enough to save not only himself but those he loves.
Burke writes this novel in the prose and cadence that is as soothing and as dangerous as the sway of a cobra before it strikes. The Jealous Kind will transport you back to a place and time that is reminiscent of Coppola’s The Outsiders. But Burke does not settle for the carbon copy rebellious youth, instead he brings about all the insecurities, hopes and fears of his characters into the light. He does not smooth our the rough edges but shows them in all the frailty and glory.
In the midst of all this violence and corruption there is a beacon. The simple ray of hope that is a young man’s first true love. Burke shows his skill in this depth as well, treating it with the dark reality that surrounds it and yet with all the innocence and faith it holds as well.
The Jealous Kind is a terrific read that defies genres and classes and stands as an example of good American storytelling and how special it really can be.