Published by Simon & Schuster on August 30, 2016
The Jealous Kind is a crime story, but it’s also the story of a teenage boy who is learning to understand himself, who is creating an identity he can carry into adulthood. The novel is also about friendship -- the difficulty of separating true friends from false friends, of deciding whether a friendship is real and when it should end. And it’s about the difficulty of being a decent person in an indecent world.
Aaron Broussard is a high school student in Texas from a working class background. His interest in a girl sparks conflict with a bully. Before long, Aaron and his friend Saber Bledsoe are suspected of torching a car near the area where a Mexican girl’s body is found. On top of that, one of his teachers, a man who is suspected of sexually abusing children, is deeply antagonistic to Broussard and Bledsoe. And on top of that, various characters have mob connections, making them doubly dangerous. And to top it all off, Aaron interacts with police officers who belong “to the huge army of people who believed that authority over others was an achievement and that violence was proof of a man’s bravery" -- although one police detective is a better example of humanity than the others.
As the plot unfolds, various acts of mayhem and murder occur. Aaron and/or Saber are suspected of involvement in most of them. The challenge for the reader is to figure out who did what. With an assortment of mobsters, gang members, and potentially violent people to choose from -- people whose motivations might be protective or destructive -- the challenge is enough to hold the reader’s steadfast interest.
Aaron’s father might be the novel’s most interesting character. He has an old-fashioned kind of southern honor. He’s well educated and knows that those of lesser “breeding” might mistake his sense of civility and manners for weakness. He believes in turning the other cheek, a value he labors to instill in Aaron.
Aaron’s father served in World War I, an experience he doesn’t like to discuss. World War II is looming, but the theme of war in The Jealous Kind is broader than international conflict. Class warfare and a hint of race wars are background themes through which the story must be viewed.
James Lee Burke builds tension chapter by chapter. It seems inevitable that Aaron will confront a life-changing moment. Whether he will survive, not just physically but emotionally, becomes the novel’s gripping question. The story is about courage, with which Aaron is plentifully supplied, but it is also about having the wisdom and maturity to make good choices -- to understand that violence is a last resort, even in a violent world. These are lessons taught by his father that Aaron will need to learn if he hopes to survive without ruining his life.
The Jealous Kind is one of Burke’s most powerful novels. In addition to Aaron, key characters engage in small acts of heroism, defying evil, standing up for principles despite overwhelming opposition. The point of The Jealous Kind, I think, is that it’s possible to find the courage and the will to confront evil without becoming evil. And sometimes courage is collective, as when friends have each other’s backs. There are always lessons to be learned from Burke’s novels and from that standpoint (as well as memorable characters, remarkable prose, and a compelling story), The Jealous Kind is one of his best.