Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Review: Harbor Lights: Stories by James Lee Burke

Harbor Lights: Stories
by James Lee Burke opens with the title story. It was in 1942, the narrator and his father were out in the Gulf south of Louisiana, when they saw the bodies floating in their life vests. His dad called it in without identifying themselves or their boat. Despite Mr. Broussard’s attempt to not draw evil into their lives, it soon arrives anyway.


Nobody believes one could drive across the floor of a lake, but he saw it happen in “Going Across Jordan.” He rode the trains with Buddy Elgin and worked jobs hardly anyone else would do. Drifting the way they did was a good life until they wound up in a place where things went sideways. Communists are a societal concern, but they are more worried about a certain bully and his connections.


“Big Midnight Special” comes next and takes readers from the Northern Rockies to Summertime in the South. Prison Life to be specific and one man trying to get through each day by keeping to himself.  Inmate Jody Prejean has other plans for our narrator, Arlen, and intends to get his way.


It was just a few days after Pearl Harbor in Yoakum, Texas, as “Deportees” begins. Aaron and his mother have shown up at the deep south Texas farm of his grandfather. A hard man on his family, he will go the extra mile for those who show up on his land after having crossed the border. Giving aid to those who crossed the nearby imaginary boundary for this nation puts him crosswise with others who can use their position to bully.

Delbert Hatfield always keeps his head down and focuses on his goal of getting tenure. Unfortunately, his daughter got herself into trouble in “The Assault.” Her situation and his own start going downhill in more ways than one.


He works the oil fields and likes to go to Hungry Gator and drink when off. He isn’t looking for anything other than a steady flow of booze. The Hungry Gator is where she met him in “The Wild Side Of Life..” Loreen Walters is pretty, married, and trouble in a way all bored married women are. Elmore is warned off as word got out about what went on in the bar though all they had were drinks together. Elmore should have listened as her and his past both come back to bite him.


He and his son are lost with a broke down car in “A Distant War.” Fortunately, they broke down near some sort of nightclub or diner. For Francis and his son, Morgan, the place is an oasis on this November evening. Or is it really?


He tries to keep his loneliness and depression at bay in “Strange Cargo.” He tries to keep his mind on the current state of things while knowing his way of life and the beauty of the land is slowly rotting away. He tries to live quiet and private, but Sheriff Jude Labiche won’t leave him alone. He just wants what he wants, but the Sheriff won’t abide that.


Harbor Lights: Stories is a short story collection full of tales that don’t rest easy on the reader. Each one is highly atmospheric, dark, and frequently tells of bullies rejected and otherwise, using their power to make things harder than they have to be for folks who just want to live in peace. The tales here span the country and the decades and frequently are populated with characters that can see the dead and hear their messages to the living. Escape is not possible as every little thing digs one deeper into the dark pit of the evil one will do to another human being. Nothing is straight forward in Habor Lights: Stories other than that regardless of time and place, weak people will always use whatever power they have to try and control others. Resisting them will have rippling consequences.


Harbor Lights: Stories is not a cozy read or one that makes the reader feel good about others. This book is dark, often very grim, read of very good short stories. One that burns into your brain and linger on after the read is finished. 

Amazon Associate Purchase Link: https://amzn.to/3vMC9fS  


My reading copy came by way of NetGalley and the publisher, Grove Atlantic, with no expectation of a review.


Kevin R. Tipple ©2023 


TracyK said...

I have not read many novels by Burke, but these short stories sound good, if a bit darker than I usually read. As always, your reviews of the stories are excellent. I will keep it in mind for the future.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Thank you for the compliment.

I am a big fan of his Dave Robicheaux series set in Southern Louisiana. The various other things--not so much. That series must be read in order as things happen and folks change.

This deal is dark. I do dark and had to take a couple of breaks here as it got to me.

TracyK said...

Thanks for letting me know how dark the stories can be, Kevin. I will still give it a try eventually, when I can find it later at lower prices. I am not buying any physical books until September 2024 anyway.