Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Just finished two collections of short stories by James Lee Burke, Jesus Out to Sea and The Convict. Both are filled with excellent stories, well written and entertaining, though his subjects are often dark and disturbing, and are usually filled with loss: of control, of love, of life. Fans of Burke's writing will find many familiar themes, language, locales, and character types (often tough, resilient, survivors). Many of the stories are told in a conversational style through first-person narrative. Burke loves lawmen, soldiers, oil men, and teachers. He continues his habit of recycling phrases and words: such hot-pillow joint, dry lightning, dimpled, stand-up guy, yo-yos; I have commented on this before, so I will let it lie. The story about the Nazi submarine is getting a bit worn (it seems to crop up in every book, and was the main focus once) though.

Jesus Out to Sea is the stronger of the two collections, with much of its punch coming from his take on the Katrina disaster. I skipped the two stories taken from earlier books, and didn't want to read "The Molester." The stories I liked best were "Winter Light" and "A Season of Regret." Both main characters seemed to fall in the Robicheaux pattern. I liked "Mist," the story of the struggle of a woman dealing with multiple deaths and her turn toward drugs and alcohol, and then her particiaption in AA, especially her relationship with her sponsor who tries to keep her from slipping into a situation she is unlikley to escape from. Burke often plums either his own upbringing (or a familiar imaginary one) in a couple of stories about a young man growing up in Houston and facing the local bully. Burke's take on Bugsy Siegal was fun. He seems most comfortable placing his stories in post-WWII South, though he does stretch into other eras and regions, mostly the West.

The slimmer, and slightly less dark, The Convict, is not as satisfying, but touches on similar themes. I enjoyed "Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans" (about a stubborn farmer who rebels against the racism and intolerance of his neighbors) and "Hack" (a 94-year-old ex-Texas Ranger taking a memory trip in his mind). Burke's foray into Civil War fiction was pretty strong, "When It's Decoration Day." I think he should consider writing a novel-length work with the Civil War as his background. These volumes are a nice step away (but not too far away) from his Robicheaux and western series.

In addition to the short stories, I finished another in the Robicheaux series, Crusader's Cross. It was ok, though a little tiring for some reason. Perhaps I need to step away for a little while. As I have complained in other notes, some of the repetitveness gets to me (another character using the mashed potatoes in the mouth reference, his continued fixation with two-by-fours up people's backsides, electrical storms, etc.). Am I crazy, or does it seem like it rains a lot in his stories? And woe be to any women in his stories, they all seem to suffer. I did like getting to know his brother a bit better.

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