Every Cloak Rolled in Blood
reviewed by Andrew Smith
On the author’s own website, he’s posted a tribute to his late daughter, Pamela, who died in July 2020. It’s an extraordinarily moving piece, the absolute pain and despair experienced by a parent losing one of their children is manifest here.
It’s no coincidence that in this book, his latest, the major character is a writer of the same age (85) living in the part of America Burke has now made his home and who is also grieving the recent loss of a daughter. The similarities go further: an upbringing in southern Louisiana and a long-term struggle with alcohol (the dirty boogie, as he calls it) also feature in both of their lives. So, when the publicity for this book states that it’s Burke’s most personal novel it’s easy to see the truth in this claim.
This is his thirteenth novel featuring a member of the Holland family. On this occasion we catch up again with Aaron Holland Broussard, who was first introduced to us in Another Kind of Eden. Aaron now lives on a large plot of land outside of Lolo, a small town in Missoula County, Montana. It appears from the start that his mind is somewhat scrambled by the loss of his daughter, Fanny Mae, and when he spots a young man spray painting a swastika on his barn door and shortly after intercepts a pair of brothers as they attempt to break into his house a chain of events is set in motion that, it seems, will ensure that things can only end badly.
There are rumors that drug running killer known as Jimmie the Digger is operating in the area and soon one dead body turns up and then another. We meet a cast of characters, including the ex-Klansman father of the boy who painted the symbol on Broussard’s barn, each more unhelpful, unfriendly or downright threatening than the last. Even the local state trooper who calls on Aaron in relation to the barn incident appears distracted and dismissive. It seems that there’s no room for softness and empathy in this place, everyone has sharp elbows and hurtful words. Humor is a stranger here.
JLB is adept at exploring the history and origins of human cruelty and in the telling of this tale there are references to historical events that took place in Dachau, Nanking, Hiroshima, at Big Hole and on Pork Chop Hill. But the slaughter he refers to most often is that carried out on this piece of land in 1870 by a band of American soldiers. Led by Colonel Eugene Baker, the troops massacred a group of Piegan Blackfeet Indians on the Marias River. It turns out that the trooper who visited Broussard earlier, Ruby Spotted Horse, is a descendent of one of those killed that day.
As events unfolded, I confess that I found it hard to interpret some scenes. Visions of new meetings with his daughter started to invade Broussard’s mind and as he, at last, seemed to have found an ally in Ruby he discovered that monsters from the past inhabit her basement. Are Aaron’s meetings with Fanny Mae a result of psychosis brought on by the medication he’s taking to fight anxiety and depression? Such events might be explained away thus, but as the supernatural became ever more integrated with what might be considered ‘real life’ it started to feel increasingly like viewing a Picasso painting: I thought I knew what I was looking at but I wasn’t quite sure.
The writing, as ever with this author, is wonderful. Words are placed with precision, creating amazingly colorful and highly textured images. The predominant feeling evoked here is that of the rawness, the utter sadness and the desperation experienced by Aaron resulting from the loss of his daughter, and of course this is an achingly personal emotion for the author. How readers feel about the way in which the story is told will, I believe, depend on their reaction to the metaphysical elements in play here. It’s a device Burke has used sparingly in the past but more extensively of late. Yet, for those who are able to embrace this style and can decipher the puzzle he presents, such is the power of this book that they might feel it is actually amongst the best he’s written.