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James Lee Burke: Raconteur of life on the margins

Diego Mattei, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sat, Jul 1st 2023

James Lee Burke

Jimenez Edizioni is a recently founded (2018) Italian publisher whose catalog contains U.S., British and Australian authors, with a focus on music and film. Last year it released a collection of short stories by James Lee Burke.[1] Born in 1936, the U.S. writer is best known for his thriller and detective novels, from which two films have been made: Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) and In the Electric Mist (2009). In both films the protagonist is Detective Dave Robicheaux, the main character of a series of novels. The most recently released was simply titled Robicheaux.[2] It focuses on the detective who has so far inspired 23 books in a series that continues to enjoy great international success.

Alongside this series from the Houston-born writer, readers will also find another set of novels devoted to the Holland family. Burke is undoubtedly a prolific, well-known novelist, whose ability has been widely recognized. He has received three Edgar Awards. On two occasions, the award was for a novel,[3] and in the wake of receiving a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, a third Edgar recognized Burke for his entire body of work.[4] The awards – presented by the Mystery Writers of America, a group of mystery, horror and thriller writers – are for works of fiction, nonfiction, television, film and drama that have appeared in the previous year.

Burke has been called “the Faulkner of Crime Fiction,” because “some of [his] favorite themes […] are confrontations with one’s past, clashes of race and class, family dramas, and gothic atmospheres fueled by legends with sinister characters roaming around misty swamps. But above all, it is in portraying the struggles within the human soul between good and evil, between light and darkness, that Burke recalls Faulkner.”[5] About this clash, Burke has written: “Read Faulkner. It’s all there. The Sound and the Fury is technically better than Ulysses. Faulkner puts his hand deep into the fury and mire of human beings. The central theme that runs through all Western literature is the search for redemption.”[6] John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Flannery O’Connor, John Dos Passos, and Tennessee Williams have also inspired Burke.[7]

Alongside his comparatively lengthy novels (his latest, Robicheaux, is more than 400 pages), there is a significant collection of short stories that have been published sporadically in magazines over the years. Here Burke might appear a minor talent, compared to his achievements in the solidly tested genre of the thriller and/or detective novel. It seems to us, however, that this short story publishing market has provided a refuge for the American writer, and for readers, who are familiar with his mainstream work and may also appreciate an alternative space to appreciate his gifted writing.

The 2007 anthology Jesus Out to Sea has now been translated by Gianluca Testani,[8] meaning Italian audiences can enjoy this collection of 11 short stories published in magazines between 1991 and 2007.

The environmental and social context of these stories is distinctive, as the events take place mostly in the Southern states of Texas and Louisiana, and the characters belong to the poor, white, working class. They are oil riggers, ex-soldiers, hunting and gun enthusiasts, bikers, women survivors of the hurricanes that routinely hit these regions, drug addicts, wandering musicians who are always looking for contracts and venues in which to perform. These are stories of people on the margins, but not marginal, because their common trait is their unequal struggle with the great forces of life. The author writes: “I realized that even a brave and dignified person like Terry Anne had her limits and did not always fare well when she had to face forces that are sometimes simply too great for us.”[9] His themes include tragedy, betrayal, devastating grief, abuse, and war memories that haunt like ghosts, natural disasters that overwhelm and destroy, such as Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans in 2005.

Burke loves his characters, even when they are problematic and make questionable choices, because “the puckered skin on the side of his face is a reminder that the good people of the world each carries their own burden.”[10] There are also religious people. In much current writing it is not usual for them to be positive characters such as Sister Roberta in Texas City, 1947, or the unnamed priest in the last story of the collection, who does not want to leave his parishioners belonging to the poorest strata of society and unable to leave New Orleans when it is about to be overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina. He stays in the parish and dies with them.

In depicting two best friends, Charlie and Nick Hauser, teenage boys during World War II – who appear in three short stories (The Molester, The Burning of the Flag, and Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine) – Burke gives way to painful nostalgia and reworks memories (names, sensations, places) that have all the flavor of personal biography, reshaped into literary form. In them, the writer shows a cross-section of life on the margins, “a neighborhood of functional houses and unkempt yards where resentment and penury were a way of life, and personal failure the fault of black people, Yankees, and foreigners.”[11] There are rivalries with peers, the turmoil of youth and desire, and difficult relationships with adults, who are sometimes violent and manipulative. In a setting evocative of the atmosphere of Stephen King’s coming-of-age novel The Body, against the world that will soon show its harshness, Charlie and Nick defend their friendship, and their wounded mutual loyalty shines amidst the poverty and overwhelming bullying that oppresses them and against which they try as best they can to defend themselves.

In the writer’s empathy for the characters of his short stories, which allows for the emergence of a surprising measure of human dignity, lies the beauty and strength of his writing, in which the descriptions of natural environments and landscapes are another charismatic factor. Such is the case in the first story, Winter Light, which opens with a sweeping description of a snowy canyon and sets the scene for the struggle between ways of life, contrasting social and economic realities, and the characters’ attitudes toward life and nature.[12] In the impressive opening phrases, Burke, through the almost total absence of punctuation marks, takes the reader’s breath away and thus immerses us in the wonder of the landscape: “He lived alone at the head of the canyon in a two-story log house that controlled the access to the national forest area behind his property. His house was built up on a slope above a creek that flowed down from a chain of lakes high up on the plateau, and from his writing desk at his second-story window he could look out over the wide sweep of valley below and see the snow blowing out of the ponderosa on the crests of the hills and the sharply edged tracks of deer that had gone down to drink in the stream during the night.”[13]

These cannot be said to be stories of heroes ultimately winning, as is often the case in U.S. films, because the wounds are deep and enduring, as in the finale of the beautiful short story Texas City, 1947, where the physical damage reflects the biographical ones.

In this human landscape, peace comes through mutual forgiveness (Water People), because in the face of pain, prejudice falls silent, and consolation comes unexpectedly through physical closeness (Mist). Water is a significant element in the stories, especially in the last one, which gives the title to the collection. It is the destructive water, poisoned by the corpses of Hurricane Katrina, which besieges homes and lives, killing, choking, sweeping away cars, trees and churches.

On the surface of these waters, echoing the primeval Flood, the wooden cross of a crucified Jesus floats, the only object visible to the characters who await salvation on the precarious roof of a house. “Then a funny thing happens. Floating right along next to us is the big wood carving of Jesus on his Cross, from the stucco church at the end of my street. He’s on his back, his arms stretched out, the waves sliding across his skin. The holes in his hands look just like the petals from the bougainvillea on the church wall. […] But considering the company I’m in – Jesus and Miles and Tony waiting for us somewhere up the pike – I got no grief with the world.”[14]

With these words the short story and the entire collection ends. There is perhaps a finally pacified sigh which emerges from troubled lives as they are welcomed into the embrace of the crucified Christ. The flowers passing through the wounds recall Baroque crucifixes that wrapped gems or gold leaf around the Lord’s body with the crucifix floating over waters of death.

For fans of the short story genre in the style of Raymond Carver or Annie Proulx, the collection of stories, Jesus Out to Sea, is a must-read.


[1]. For a biography of the writer, see A. Bullo, “James Lee Burke: la biografia”, in Thriller Café (, August 7, 2015.

[2]. Cf. J. L. Burke, Robicheaux, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

[3]. In 1990 with the novel Black Cherry Blues; in 1998 with the novel Cimarron Rose.

[4]. In 2009 Burke received the Grand Master Award (carrier award) from the Mystery Writers of America.

[5]. A. Bullo, “James Lee Burke: la biografia”, op. cit.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Cf. ibid.

[8]. Cf. J. L. Burke, Gesù dell’uragano e altre storie, Rome, Jimenez, 2022.

[9]. Ibid., 143.

[10]. Ibid., 129.

[11]. Ibid., 148.

[12]. This story inspired the film God’s Country, directed by Julian Higgins, which was presented at the Sundance festival and was released in U.S. cinemas in 2022. The film has not yet been released in Italy .

[13]. J. L. Burke, Gesù dell’uragano e altre storie, op. cit., 9.

[14]. Ibid., 189.

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