Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke (audio)

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.


jesus-out-to-seaOn 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.


Rating: 8 bougainvilleas.

*For the record, whatever your position on hunting, I think this character has a right to control his own property.

Mississippi Noir ed. by Tom Franklin

Collected noir stories firmly grounded in Mississippi atmosphere offer a concise view of the genre’s possibilities.

mississippi noir

Akashic Books’ noir series travels to Mississippi, with Tom Franklin editing this collection of short stories by both established and newly published authors. Mississippi Noir includes 16 tales, symmetrically organized in four sections of four: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” “Bloodlines” and “Skipping Town.” The thematic groupings are loose, and the contents work equally well in any order, picked up and put down as the reader chooses.

These chilling stories vary in length, from 20-some pages down to just a few, and though they cover a range of subjects and settings in time, they consistently embody the ideal of noir writing with a strong sense of place. Bullets, blood, abuse and longing appear frequently, with some sex scenes thrown in as well. Ace Atkins writes of desperate teens running out of options; Megan Abbott, in a scintillating contribution, views from both sides a romance gone tragically wrong; Chris Offutt’s understated story stars a waitress drifting from town to town; and Dominiqua Dickey’s first published story involves an interracial romance in 1936. Within all of the pieces, the authors pay special attention to local details: natural beauty, economic depression, college culture, the longing to escape a small town or the yearning for a wider world.

These stories are dark by definition, and marked by unhappiness: as one narrator sighs, “I wanted sleep to pass without actually having to sleep. I wanted the future.” But an appreciation for the surroundings is always evident; these pages drip with Mississippi humidity. Fans of classic noir will be pleased and rooted in this redolent setting.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 bullets.

The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters

The case of a disgruntled P.I. with mysterious enemies is set in atmospheric 1930s New Orleans.

red storm

Grant Bywaters employs his expertise as a licensed private investigator in his first novel, The Red Storm. William Fletcher was a 1920s black prizefighter whose ambitions for the heavyweight title were frustrated by the prejudices of his day. After the end of his boxing career, he becomes a P.I. in New Orleans, a city Fletcher credits with a “more lax view on segregation.” He struggles to make a living, though, so when a contact from his old life shows up more than 15 years later requesting help, Fletcher reluctantly agrees to investigate, even though Bill Storm is a wanted murderer. Storm wants to find his estranged daughter. But as soon as Fletcher contacts her, violence breaks out around both Fletcher and Zella Storm. What, exactly, has Storm gotten him into?

Fletcher is a loner, with racial tensions adding to the distinctive anti-authority stance his profession tends to take. Zella is a peppery character, with an ambitious career singing in French Quarter establishments that would rather she just take her clothes off. Bywaters evokes a recognizable New Orleans and surrounding swamps, and the police are hard beset by organized crime, both local and inbound from New York City. Fletcher may be just the man to help out, if he can keep himself and Zella alive. The Red Storm‘s plot is solid, but it is the setting in both time and place that distinguish this classically styled noir P.I. story, which Bywaters flavors with period slang as liberally as a Creole cook spices food.


This review originally ran in the December 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 songs.

The Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham; illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham darkly reimagines classic fairy tales, with moodily appropriate illustrations.

wild swan

Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Hours) takes a fresh and dark look at a selection of classic fairy tales with A Wild Swan: And Other Tales. His brief, richly imagined new stories, often based only loosely on their models, are accompanied by detailed, atmospheric black-and-white illustrations by Yuko Shimizu.

An introduction teases readers to acknowledge that they, too, enjoy seeing the fairy tales’ “manifestations of perfection”–those with “comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm”–cut low. Cunningham then proceeds to do just that with his versions of originals by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and others.

Here readers will find the “crazy old lady” who lures Hansel and Gretel to her cottage of candy in the woods; but Hansel and Gretel are pierced and tattooed, and sexy “with their starved and foxy faces.” Snow White’s prince is obsessed with the beautiful deathly version of her he discovered in the coffin, and troublingly insists on replaying the scene over and over again. Rumpelstiltskin is surprisingly well intentioned–for the most part. Rapunzel’s life following the closure of the Grimms’ tale is revealed, and it’s a good thing she kept her severed braids. The Beast has grown to be a bad boy, even after Beauty gives him her love. He is “impeccably handsome” with “a lascivious, bestial smile; a rapacious and devouring smile,” the one who might catch your eye on the subway or at “the after-hours party your girlfriend has insisted on,” but you’ll come to regret it. And in the title story, the princess is successful in transforming all of her brothers but one back to their fully human forms.

Cunningham sometimes brings these stories into more or less modern times, but the point of this collection is not to recast the classics with smartphones and fast cars, and the setting of some remains unchanged. Rather, these are playful riffs on well-known stories, almost always with a still gloomier tone than even the Brothers Grimm applied. The mood of these tales of disturbing fetishes, murderous schemings and pedestrian human flaws such as hubris, laziness and jealousy is eventually relieved, however, by Cunningham’s final flourish, entitled “Ever/After.”

A Wild Swan works expert mischief with backstory, aftermath, interludes and retellings of well-known favorites. These tales are not always for the kids, of course, but will appeal to an intersection of dark humor and nostalgia for timeless stories, or anyone with an appreciation for a deliciously spooky imagination.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 minutes under the lid.

movie: Rear Window (1954)

Happily, after some disappointment with The Birds the other night, I moved directly into another Hitchcock film that pleased me far more. I found Rear Window entertaining, clever, funny, and visually pleasing. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly don’t hurt, of course. But fundamentally, I think murder-mystery ages better than horror, and that is what Rear Window is: not horror, but a noir murder mystery, which is one of my favorite things.

rear windowJames Stewart is L.B. Jefferies (“Jeff”), successful photographer of the adventurous sort, known for action shots, combat and the like. He is laid up with a broken leg, in a wheelchair, in his apartment, which suits him poorly, of course. Also irksome is his girlfriend and would-be fiancĂ©, the lovely Lisa (Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite he feels can’t possibly accept his life on the edge. Bored and bothered, he takes to spying on his neighbors out the window. The entire movie takes place from this perspective: we only ever see the inside of Jeff’s apartment, and the view he sees out its window, into a courtyard and the windows that also look upon it. There’s a middle-aged couple with a little dog; a female sculptor; a young ballerina who entertains many men; a slightly older, lonely woman; a composer struggling with his latest work; and a salesman who appears to be entirely tired of caring for his invalid wife. Jeff is visited by Lisa as well as a nurse, and a police detective friend he calls on for help when he thinks he’s witnessed a murder.

I loved the visuals: both James Stewart and Grace Kelly (particularly in tandem), and the vignette-style views of courtyard and other apartments, almost a shadowbox effect. I loved the survey of lives and loves provided by Jeff’s perspective. The lives he peeks into represent a range of experiences of life, different levels of contentment. I thought the suspense was well-done in a classic, thunder-and-lightning, guns-and-beautiful-ladies style. Even the puzzle itself – the whodunit – was engaging, if imperfect. The business with the flashbulbs struck me as quite ridiculous, but I laughed good-naturedly, because the overall effect of the story, the sets and the cast was so enjoyable. My fourth Hitchcock film is definitely my favorite. Fans of Agatha Christie will be pleased.


Rating: 9 little red pills.

iDiOM Theater presents Clown Bar

I had a romping and hilarious good time seeing the iDiOM Theater’s production of Clown Bar with my Husband and parents. This was my first time at the iDiOM Theater, a tiny, intimate place with just three rows of seats in my section, which allows or necessitates that the players use the audience as part of their stage: awesome.

photo from the Herald

photo from the Herald: click to enlarge

Clown Bar is a work of clown noir, in which a man named Happy – who retired from the funny business to go straight and become a cop – is forced to go back down into the seedy clown underworld to search for his brother’s killer. The play takes place in Clown Bar, a business run by the sinister BoBo. Other literally colorful characters include Petunia (who sidelines as a sex worker), Shotgun (whose name references two meanings of the word), helpful Twinkles, straight-faced Giggles, the terrifying Popo, and of course the unforgettable Blinky Fatale. Also the unfortunately unfunny character Timmy (actually very funny as played), the murdered brother, who we meet in flashback scenes. This is not a play for the whole family: drugs, violence, sexual content including a thoroughly effective burlesque scene (wow!) make for adult entertainment, thank you very much.

I thought this was wonderful stuff. The story is engaging, and I love how it was played: the characters mostly face the audience, making eye contact and interacting with us in lively fashion even as they address one another. They really used the intimate setting. The clown frame was explored not just in fun costumes – although absolutely those – but with mannerisms and theme music. (The music was central, and because this is a small town, we recognized our electrician’s assistant playing the bass.) I jumped off my seat a few times in alarm during this dark and murderous show; but more often I laughed out loud at the antics. Husband and I discussed our favorite characters: I listed pretty much all of them, though, so that is unhelpful.

I commented to Grammy just the other week, when we saw In Your Arms in San Diego, that living in a smaller town means seeing events that are often less polished, less professional Broadway-level work than you see in Houston (or San Diego). And I confess that it was impressive to see In Your Arms, one of those top-level professionally produced plays. But the fact is I really enjoy community-level theatre a great deal, too. Even without the tiny theatre that lets you actually touch the actors, it feels more intimate to see your talented neighbors engaged in a passion that is so entertaining to watch. And I want to be clear: this was not messy amateur work; this was absolutely talented acting, in every role in this play. The fact that it was born closer to home just made it all the more enjoyable to me.

iDiOM Theater has got the goods. I’ll be back. And Clown Bar is worth the time if you can track it down.


Rating: 8 mixed drinks.

movie: Jackie Brown (1997)

jackie brown
You know I’m a Tarantino fan, but I stumbled on this one, friends.

Jackie Brown (played by Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who’s been busted smuggling cash over international borders for Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Ordell. The cops don’t want her in prison: they want her to inform on him. Ordell bails her out with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, who feels decades more dated than the rest of the film), so he can kill her; but she thwarts him. Jackie plays the cops (chiefly an ATF agent played by Michael Keaton) against Ordell against Cherry, who falls for her; adding to the star-studded staff is Ordell’s old friend fresh out of jail, played by Robert De Niro, one of his kept women played by Bridget Fonda, and a brief role by Chris Tucker.

In Tarantino fashion, the plot is many-twisted: Jackie tells everybody a different story of herself and her plans, so watch closely for where she’s really headed and who’s really holding the bag. The script is heavy on clever monologues that are not strictly realistic but are great fun to listen to nonetheless. (These are the great strengths of Pulp Fiction, I think.) I hadn’t known that this movie was based on an Elmore Leonard novel (Rum Punch), but it makes sense now.

On the other hand, where I think the extensive use of the n-word in Django Unchained was fairly well justified and pointed, it grated here. There were many references to race that felt gratuitous rather than purposeful. I felt uncomfortable. I know this movie is supposed to reference a tradition of “blaxploitation” movies that I missed out on: maybe I’m just lacking the reference point to appreciate Tarantino’s edginess. But that’s my reaction: it was a little too unjustifiably race-conscious for me.

I did like the vintage feel to the movie. Anthony Lee Collins or somebody else with the relevant expertise will have to help me out here: I know there’s something about the cinematography, maybe the type of film used (?), that makes Jackie Brown feel older than it is. I can’t put my finger on it but Robert Forster’s character felt out of another time, even within the context of the film. And then there’s the text used in certain sections, like in the Kill Bill movies, that felt like it referenced something older, too.

So, a mixed review. I liked the plot twists, and the acting was excellent, and Tarantino’s monologues continue to crack me up. But the n-word got to me this time around.


Rating: 5 shopping bags.
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