Disclosure: James Lee Burke has said some nice things about me. I appreciate that, deeply. But he couldn’t buy my good review that way. Not all of his books are equally excellent. This one is excellent.
On our drive south, Husband and I listened to this collection of James Lee Burke short stories on audio. I found it deeply powerful. The stories range widely: geographically, they are set in Gulf Coast south Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Montana. In time, they are set in the 1940s and 50s through 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Protagonists are oil rig workers, children, jazz musicians and retired professors of literature and creative writing. What they all have in common, though–characters and stories both–is their focus on society’s outcasts and castaways, the downtrodden and unlucky, the poor; and on the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women). In other words: classic James Lee Burke.
The opening story, “Winter Light,” stars a retired academic who opposes hunters and doesn’t let them on his land. His refusal to back down in this and other just causes* precipitates ugly events. “The Village” is a short, stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative by a military man involved in a massacre in Vietnam. Its style, if not its tone, is different enough from the Burke I know to startle me; I am impressed. “The Night Johnny Ace Died” tracks musicians through love triangles and organized crime in 1950s Louisiana. “Water People” sees base conflicts and suppressed traumas among Gulf Coast oil drill workers in the same era. “Texas City, 1947” references a real-life major catastrophe of that year (look it up), but that big event is only one piece of a puzzle starring an abused child and a number of sad and sordid crimes, as well as a sympathetic nun who (sadly) Husband didn’t find terribly realistic. My impression from hearing these stories read aloud is that this was one of the longer ones. If that’s incorrect, at least it was one of the more impactful for me, and contained lots of familiar geographic markers.
“Mist” featured a young woman attending AA meetings and trying to be sober. Her past traumas include the death of her husband in Iraq and events during Hurricane Katrina that go unnamed for most of the story. I suppose this is a personal reaction, but I found the particular uglinesses of this story harder than most of the others. But beautifully done, and not exploitative.
“A Season of Regret” reprises the opening story: a different retired academic on his own chunk of land makes a stand for a different set of just issues. I enjoyed the new version of a familiar concept. These are two different characters and two different sets of challenges, but the emotional tone is the same. Next come a trio of stories told by the same narrator, a child named Charlie growing up in 1950s Houston. These have their higher and lower moments in terms of holding interest, but I found the characters–Charlie, his best friend Nick, Charlie’s father, and the family of neighborhood bullies–compelling. And there’s nothing like hearing the specific history of my hometown extracted and mulled upon in its details: it feels like coming home.
The final, titular story is the clear tour de force of this collection, in my opinion. “Jesus Out to Sea” is narrated by a man from New Orleans, who grew up on Magazine Street with two best friends who were brothers. The three go to Vietnam; one is broken by the experience and ends up a gangster; the narrator and the other brother become modestly accomplished jazz musicians who decline into hard drug use before the gangster helps them get clean. The story culminates with a storm that need not be named. While Burke’s writing throughout this collection is as lyrical, startling and shockingly beautiful as ever, this story showcases those talents the best, in its repeated use of bougainvilleas as the blood of Christ, or the blood of any of us, among other things. This story is music and poetry and oh, the tragedy. I admit to being especially affected by Katrina stories. But this one evokes all the unnecessary pain and wrongness of it, as well as the simple natural forces that those of us from hurricane country are familiar with, and the ways in which this storm was different. As we listened to “Jesus Out to Sea,” Husband was driving south across Utah, and we missed a turn by 20 miles or so because our navigator (ahem) was so distracted. It’s powerful stuff, this.
Sharing a book with Husband is a rare treat for me, so I want to give voice to some of his reactions. Overall, he gave this collection a 7, and complained of abrupt endings that didn’t wrap everything up neatly: he wanted to understand clearly what happened to everybody, which is a privilege not always afforded. He wanted a little more justice, to see revenge gained. But we know we don’t always get that from Burke.
He loved the nostalgia of hearing about places and cultural and historical markers we know intimately, though, and I have long found this to be one of the easiest ways to win a reader’s heart: shared landmarks, especially geographic ones (at least for those of us tied to place), and especially little-known ones, so we feel like we’re in on a secret. The classic example in this case was the Alabama Ice House, where young Charlie goes to fetch his dad home for dinner in the 1950s, and where they sometimes get hot dogs: Husband said, “they still serve hot dogs there!” excitedly, and I shared his enthusiasm for a place we know and love. For Husband (not for me), one young protagonist’s experiences in Catholic school also rang a bell.
Husband struggled to find certain details of some stories realistic. But my reaction was very different. I guess I’m more inclined to trust Burke to know better than I do how some things work; or to trust that some unrevealed detail could explain the unlikely event. In the case of a famous gangster showing an interest in learning yo-yo tricks from a couple of kids–maybe I was just too charmed by the whimsical and oh-so-human oddity to complain. Husband did praise the descriptions and scenes overall, said he could visualize what was described; and I think what he’s referring to is the fullness of sensory detail, the evocation of fully-formed worlds.
I also want to mention the repeated images and phrases that showed up in this collection. Several characters, when startled or distracted, looked as if flashbulbs had just gone off in their faces. Several suffer from noises in their heads that recall the thropping of helicopter blades or the banging of people trapped in their attics in rising water. Husband noticed these, too, and again we had different reactions. I have the impression that some of these come from a Burke habit, a way of seeing and describing things. Others–the thropping of the helicopter in a troubled character’s head–I think might serve as a wise and artful linking device. These stories are held together in several ways: the attention they pay to underclasses and injustices, a way of looking at the world, and a sense of the Louisiana Gulf Coast as the center of a personal world. They are also held together by poetry, bloody bougainvilleas, the smell of fish spawning, and torment; and if that torment recurs as a series of thumping sounds, it only helps us follow Burke’s special genius.
*For the record, whatever your position on hunting, I think this character has a right to control his own property.