Eleven violent, heartfelt slices of life among the underdogs of the Louisiana bayous and Texas plains from acclaimed mystery novelist Burke (Pegasus Descending, 2006, etc.).
Burke’s volcanic novels of guilt, revenge and redemption wouldn’t have pegged him as a master of the highly wrought short story. Yet he’s something even better: a natural storyteller with a feeling for unequal conflicts and the pain of impotence and humiliation. Within a page or two, he can hook you with the tale a retired professor menaced by a cadre of swaggering hunters (“Winter Light”) or, in a virtual rehash of the same plot, a rancher who takes up for a young woman harassed by a biker gang in “A Season of Regret.” In “The Night Johnny Ace Died” and “Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine,” starry-eyed small-time hoods cross paths with criminal headliners, with results as touching as they are predictable. A running argument between an oil-rig driller and a dynamiter swells to a roar before it subsides in “Water People.” Several entries visit the territory in the wake of Katrina. The title story strands a pair of young musicians in the floodwaters waiting for rescue by Jesus or a charismatic gangster, and “Mist” follows a shattered survivor determined to stay off drugs and the streets despite repeated relapses. But Burke’s voice is just as urgent when he’s describing a murderous raid in Vietnam (“The Village”) or recalling the childhood of boys being raised by their father’s uncaring mistress (“Texas City, 1947”) or standing up to a smooth-talking predator (“The Molester”) or fighting over an American flag against the backdrop of Pearl Harbor (“The Burning of the Flag”).
If some of the endings are rushed or unconvincing or just plain AWOL, that’s because Burke understands that conflicts like these, even spun out to novel length, never truly end.