Review

Jesus Out to Sea: Stories

by James Lee Burke

I
remain in awe of James Lee Burke. Despite the occasional yet
persistent flaws in his books --- a tendency to rush his endings, a
manifestation of a seemingly pathological dislike of the wealthy
--- his work remains arguably unsurpassed by contemporary authors.
Burke mines much of the same territory explored by Erskine Caldwell
and, more recently, Cormac McCarthy --- the plight of the
underclass in the rural south --- but is more poetic than the
former and more accessible than the latter.

JESUS OUT TO SEA is a collection of Burke’s
under-appreciated short fiction, gathered from a diverse number of
sources and publications --- everything from Confrontation
to Esquire to Amazon Shorts. The underdogs who populate
these stories seem infused with details of Burke’s own past,
whether it be a retired college professor who runs afoul of bikers
in “A Season of Regret” or the young man who, deprived
of a responsible father figure, takes matters into his own hands in
“Texas City, 1947.” The atmosphere is at best grim,
reaching the nadir of its abyss, in the hair-raising
“Mist,” in which a widow struggles to escape addiction,
and the apocalyptic title story, concerning the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina.

Even at his darkest, however, Burke’s collection is shot
through with a beauty and clarity that is simultaneously painful
and a joy to behold. Such a state makes it difficult to pick a
favorite. “Water People” describes the work of drilling
oil and the people who do it with such accuracy that it seems as if
one will be forever haunted by its imagery, particularly when
filling up the gas tank in a weekly ritual heretofore taken for
granted. The triumph over adversity against seemingly
insurmountable odds is an old theme yet in “The
Molester” is freshly and impressively presented.

It is, perhaps, “Texas City, 1947” that is the
highlight of JESUS OUT TO SEA. Excerpted from Burke’s A
STAINED WHITE RADIANCE, this is a dark coming-of-age tale in which
the author, with just a few lines of dialogue, brings a sad story
of the separation of a father and son to a sorrowful conclusion,
full of loss but without apparent bitterness or anger.

JESUS OUT TO SEA is a brilliant introduction to those who have
been attracted to Burke’s writing but are reluctant to dive
into his myriad novels, which comprise the Robicheaux mythos. It is
also an indication that an investment of time into an investigation
of those works will provide a welcome rate of return.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Jesus Out to Sea: Stories
by James Lee Burke

  • Publication Date: June 5, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1416548564
  • ISBN-13: 9781416548560