I have a ridiculous beast of a dog. Everything about him is kind of ludicrous. For instance, he is really big (132 pounds big) and his body is so long that it takes his butt a while to catch up with his head. The result is that he has a kind of Marliyn Monroe wiggle to his walk. He likes to jam himself between people’s legs, effectively trapping them (as they now have a small pony standing under them) while keeping himself oh so cosy. Also, his name is Tim, and Tim, as a name for a giant German Shepherd, is kind of funny. In The Republic, Plato, who is always joking around, says that dogs are the most philosophic of animals. And anyone who has met Tim would know how funny a claim this is. For even though Tim recently got his head stuck under a fence because he really had to know more about that squirrel, it’s hard to take Tim’s interests as the business of philosophy.
Because philosophy, of course, is serious business. Putting aside for a minute the temptation to make a joke about individuals dressed in somber colours confronting the angst of their eventual demise, philosophy is about the essential questions of human life – is there a god? how can I be happy? what is the nature of goodness? do happiness and goodness coincide? what does it mean to be human? And, as important as these questions are to an individual’s life, when one broadens one’s scope to begin to think about the often tragic events of human history and the global political arena, the questions of philosophy become all the more potent.
In this context, I think it makes sense that thoughtful individuals are drawn to works of tragedy as a source of meaning. For after all, tragedy is serious stuff. It forces us to think about the nature of justice, individual morality, and human happiness in a way that perhaps we aren’t compelled to when we read or watch comedies. And yet Hegel, a 19th century German philosopher, a guy who no one would accuse of not being serious, and whose style of writing is certainly tragic enough, says in his Aesthetics, that as much as he likes tragedies, ultimately, comedies are to be preferred.
At first glance, one might not take James Lee Burke’s novels to be the stuff of comedy. Set in the southern US, they evoke a gothic sensibility with evil, in the prurest manifestation of human malfeasance, always around the corner and often on your own street and in your own yard.
Yet his novels are also about the search for justice, about people who are willing to sacrifice their own interests and even themselves for the sake of what is right. And, insofar as justice prevails, Burke’s heros achieve a kind of particular reconciliation with universal principles. They will and achieve the universal not in some abstract way, but in their practical lives and in the lives of those they love. In this, these novels are comedic in the highest order.
Burke’s most recent novel, The Jealous Kind, is no exception to this rule. Set in the 1950s in Texas, the novel’s protagonist, Aaron Holland Broassard, unwittingly draws the wrath of Mob down on himself, his family, his best friend, and Valerie, the woman he loves. Through the course of threats and dramatic violence, Aaron discovers within himself the courage to fight back, ultimately prevailing. Indeed, in an almost comic naivety, Aaraon at one point says to Valerie, “We’ll be ok … Straight shooters always win.”
The more cynical among us, might be inclined to say, so far, so much cheese. Yet, the novel is not about easy endings. At one point in the narrative Broassard, who insists he be called Aaron, falls into what we are to understand is a habitual kind of spell, where he, descending into darkness, awakens much later uncertain about what he has done. Even though everyone he meets assures him that he’s not the kind of person who would intentionally kill someone else, we see him violently attack his enemies in ways that, if justified, nonetheless, increase the danger to his family and friends.
Sitting in a church, at one point, Aaron, worries, that his blackouts are ways by which he attempts to avoid facing the darkest parts of his personality and he admits that he desires to kill his enemies. And while the first black out he has results only in slashing the tires of one of his enemies. He is implicated in the possible murder of a young woman. While we eventually discover that he was not involved in her death, in his next spell, he almost kills her cousin, Loren Nicols, a young man who turns out to be motivated by the same sense of beauty and desire for good as himself. Straight shooters may indeed win, but it’s not that easy to aim straight.
Aaron eventually realizes that true courage means sacrificing oneself for the sake of those he loves, and he plans to confront all of his enemies, offering himself up in exchange for the safety of his family. He is providentially saved from what promises to be a gruesome and painful death, and his enemies are destroyed without him having to actually kill anyone. But just as in life, the story continues, and we learn that his best friend, who joins the marines, is lost as a POW in the Korean War, while his father is accidentally killed in a car accident. Not all the straight shooters, it turns out, win in the way we might expect or hope.
In another way, however, it turns out, they do win. It is Aaron’s attraction to Valerie and the love he bears for his family, that results in all of the subsequent fear and danger. That he loves, results in his obligation to protect those he loves and sacrifice himself in so doing. Yet, the act of loving makes all of the subsequent trials worthwhile, for, as Aaron notes in the epilogue, “When [Valerie] pulled herself against me and held her head tight against my shoulder, her hands squeezing into my arm, I knew that neither of us would ever die, that life was a song, eternal in nature, and the smell and secrets of creation lay in the tumble of every wave that crested and receded into the Gulf. I also knew that the gifts of both heaven and earth would always remain where they had always been, at our fingertips and in the shimmer we see in the eyes of those we love.” Whatever Aaron’s ultimate end in the natural world, his love is eternally and infinitely the source of courage and a desire for justice and the only possible means of his happiness. And while that might be comedic in a funny, ha, ha, kind of way, it is comedic in that it speaks to an end in joy.
So Tim is of course a ridiculous beast to love. But, I know that he chases those squirrels because he believes they are imminent threat to my well-being. And given the great danger he takes upon himself in the hunt, how can I not love him in return?