There's always a lot of emotion in James Lee Burke's work. Emotions simmer and passions drive the characters. This collection of his short stories, Jesus Out to Sea, is no exception.
Of course, with Burke, it's not always pleasant emotion or healthy passion. Many, if not most, of his characters are desperate for a human connection or simply a kind word. Burke doesn't seem to mind if that connection takes the form of a friendly hug or of murder or cruelty. Burke's world is dark and sometimes not much light or optimism gets through.
Burke's strength here is in his descriptions -- powerful, sometimes stark, sometimes lush images -- and in his ability to concisely create a world and very real characters in just a few pages. Despite the hype about the collection, only two of the stories are set in post--Katrina New Orleans, the city he has often used as a backdrop, most notably in his series of Dave Robicheaux novels. Burke's Big Easy (or "Big Sleazy," as he describes it in one story) has always been darker and more dangerous than the Chamber of Commerce there would be comfortable with.
In both the title story and the other post-Katrina story, "Mist," Burke creates a striking look at how the hurricane and flooding situations were handled by the government and other powers-that-be by telling the personal stories of his characters. "Jesus Out to Sea" would be a powerful story, even had most of us not seen some of the amazing Coast Guard rescues on CNN. Unfortunately, perhaps because we've all been exposed to so much tragedy in the world, the plight of so many people at the Superdome doesn't register as starkly as the conversations of three men on a rooftop. "Mist" is the story of Lisa, an evacuee dealing with addition problems and, most of all, guilt -- psychologists would call it survivor's guilt, I suppose. Burke, a native of Texas, grew up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast so he really knows these people and this area. (He still lives, at least part-time, in New Iberia, La.)
In "Winter Light" and "A Season of Regret," rather mild-mannered professor types reach breaking points in their lives and must deal with violent onslaughts of the outside world personified by hunters and bikers. Burke of course has been a professor, so he knows firsthand about the politics and posturing that occurs in many academic settings. And he knows about the power of secrets.
"Texas City, 1947" is probably my favorite story in the collection. Burke writes well from the perspective of a child and offers fully developed characters that make you want to keep reading even though you can probably guess what will happen in the end.
Both "The Burning of the Flag" and "Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine" are set in the 1940s and told from a boy's perspective. Both stories deal with bullies. Bullies are bullies, no matter the time frame, and learning how to cope with them colors most of our lives. "Bugsy Siegel" won a Pushcart Prize, and "The Burning of the Flag" really evokes a feeling and atmosphere similar to To Kill a Mockingbird.
"The Night Johnny Ace Died" sketches the 1950s and the era of early rock 'n' roll. Looking back, most people consider that a more innocent time, but Burke smashes those rose-colored glasses. To pieces. Johnny Ace was a real person, an early R&B star who killed himself in a Russian roulette incident. Burke tells the story from the point of view of a musician who was a sometime sideman for Ace.
Publisher's Weekly says of the collection that "Burke demonstrates impressive range, sensitivity and polish in these smaller-scale gems." These stories are all that and more: gritty, evocative, dark -- like gut-wrenching blues songs, played by a master.
Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $14