James Lee Burke is one of America’s best living novelists, but I’d give Bitterroot a ‘B’. I admired the ambition in the book, and for the first half I was mesmerized by Burke’s depiction of Montana and his deft touch with portrayals of evil. Burke let this one go on too long, though.
The story begins with Billy Bob Holland, an ex-Texas Ranger and defense attorney, arriving in Montana to help out an old buddy. The friend, Doc, has a checkered history as both a healer and a Vietnam-war killer. Billy Bob also indulged in state-sanctioned murder during his time in law enforcement, and remains haunted by visions of his best friend, whom he shot on the border while hunting down and killing drug smugglers.
Both men wrestle with their younger selves’ propensity for violence when, in Montana, Billy Bob encounters Wyatt Dixon, a psychopath who blames him for the death of his sister – and when Doc’s teenage daughter, Maisey, is gang-raped by local bikers.
Rape is the subtext throughout the book, from the harrowing act early in the book, through Burke’s gradual exploration of people (white people) and the land – the rape of the West itself. He introduces Creek Indians clinging to their last straws of dignity, white supremacists, and the way history gets half-forgotten or distorted by the present generation in a bid to recommit old crimes.
Burke has always been a writer consumed by definitions of morality and of the empathy required to lead a meaningful life. He thinks big while tying these into page-turning thrillers. By naming his story after the beautiful but vulnerable Bitterroot Valley in which it’s set, Burke isn’t being coy. Bitterroot is the perfect title for a fable of the American West.
Unfortunately I felt that Burke let the plot get the better of him. The tension between Billy Bob trying to rein in Doc, handle Wyatt Dixon, and deal with other characters who come in – two women, Billy Bob’s son, more scumbags, and a sardonic sheriff – lose momentum.
Most intriguing is a character who is a mystery writer, who has won the Edgar Award twice, a rare feat, despite being a raging alcoholic. This is a joke, or just Burke’s way of playing with his story: he is an alcoholic (teetotal now) and also one of the handful of mystery writers in the U.S. to have won two Edgar Awards. It’s not clear whether we are meant to view the writer character as an alter ego – which Burke must have expected readers to suspect. It’s a little distracting, although the writer does have some of the best lines in the book.
My main point, though, is that that the conflict with Wyatt Dixon is slow to come to a head. Burke opens the tale with Dixon being kicked out of Texas, but we never really get an idea of why he’s in Montana – was he actually hunting down Billy Bob, or was it a coincidence? The good guys and the bad guys go several rounds at each other, but maybe one too many; Dixon seems oddly passive by the end, which may have been Burke trying to draw out the worst in Billy Bob, who’s trying to resolve things without resorting to murder.
Burke is too good a writer to pen a bad book, and the best parts of Bitterroot mix crime-fiction pulp with serious questions about the American narrative. His compromised lawman is a good protagonist, a cocktail of the Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne characters from “The Searchers”. But the plot gets just a little too obtuse.