Mired in the mystique of war--World War II followed by Korea--Aaron Holland Broussard of Houston, Texas, is at a crossroads in his life: “My father belonged to that generation of Southerners drawn to self-destruction and impoverishment as though neurosis and penury represented virtue.” Respectful of his alcoholic if cultured father and mentally unstable mother, Aaron is filled with stories of courage in wartime and a heart ready for love. Unfortunately, his first meeting with Valerie Epstein occurs when he witnesses her breaking up with the wealthy Grady Harrelson, who thereafter sees Aaron as the obstacle to repairing the relationship. What begins as a magical meeting between Aaron and Valerie becomes a tangled web of enmity, crime, jealousy, and terror as the idealism of youth collides with the gritty reality of Houston circa 1952, where small-town folks avoid the seedier parts of town, criminal enterprises thrive, and violence is commonplace.
Aaron and his friend Saber Bledsoe get caught between the city’s ugly underbelly and the usual bravado of rebellious young men, where rivalry crosses the line into violence and conflicts yield deadly consequences. Aaron’s meeting with Valerie is seminal, life-changing, the moment defining what kind of man he must be to deserve this woman. Youth is left behind as events evolve. Aaron faces challenges far beyond the experiences of his childhood, a convoluted game of many pieces, a collusion of past and present, loyalty and deceit, the absence of honor as men posture and feint, protected by wealth and influence. Returned vets with scarred memories stand side by side with the broken, the arrogant, and the greedy. Drugs and crime thrive on poverty and endemic corruption, ignominy protected by iron gates--here a prison, there a manicured estate. It is a time when manhood demands clarity, where honor demands commitment, a youthful crusade fighting an old evil.
Such is the territory of Burke’s stories, broad subjects writ personal, the contrast between man’s strengths and weaknesses, the armies of light versus dark. Much as I love Burke’s work, I found The Jealous Kind dense and uninspiring, a young man’s beliefs clashing with what awaits in the world, boldness begot of surety. While Valerie Epstein is a pivotal character, she seems little more (at least in the beginning) than the fulcrum for the testosterone-fueled battles between men both good and bad, Aaron calling out his adversaries as he untangles the knotted threads of the conflict that has absorbed him. There is a kind of righteous arrogance driving this character, a flawed do-gooder, a bold portrait that Burke would formerly paint in fine strokes to wind around the heart and reach deep into the human psyche, poignant and memorable.
Immersed in post-war American spirit and the lure of battle on foreign soil, this is a time now barely remembered, save for the elderly who survived these extraordinary events. Clearly the author tread these years, grown mature on this landscape, perhaps his protagonist a reliving of those bright days of early manhood. There are emotional ties to time and place, a more innocent albeit just as brutal era, but the message fails to resonate, characters slipping away too soon, their story leaving few moments to savor afterwards. Burke bequeaths a weighty legacy too important to judge harshly. He has certainly enriched my world, if not in this novel.