Wednesday, February 28, 2024

"Harbor Lights: Stories" by James Lee Burke

Living in the underbelly of society is a struggle.

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It's a hand-to-mouth existence; you never know where your next meal will come from, unless it's from a warden or a trusty. You never truly know who you're sleeping against or where your next ten bucks'll come from. There's no privacy living in the underbelly. You can lose your soul there. And in "Harbor Lights," a new short-story collection by James Lee Burke, you could also lose your life.

No matter what the chore, Aaron Broussard loved doing things with his father: fishing, boating, traveling, lunching, spotting dead men in the water along the Louisiana coast. James Broussard knew why those men were floating: it was 1942, and a German submarine was nearby. He knew it. In the first story, that which gives this book its title, the FBI knew it, too, and they aimed to keep Broussard quiet.

Beneath Montana's Flathead Lake lies an ancient highway that folks say you can see if you look hard. Running from the law, R.B Ruger stood on the banks of the lake and saw the road dotted with headlights like stars in a dark Western sky. In "Going Across Jordan," he never thought anyone'd need to dive down and follow it.

Mind yourself and don't go anywhere near the Red Hat House out near Camp A, where men suffer horribly. Lead Belly was out there once, and Arlen thinks about that, and about how he just wants to be left alone with his Gibson to serve his time. But in "Big Midnight Special," there'll be a prison boxing match soon, and Arlen will put on gloves – or else.

All Francis wanted to do was go home. Home from Vietnam, home and away from his memories, home in the middle of a storm with his son, but his truck broke down outside a two-bit bar in the middle of nowhere. He'd seen some things in battle that he'd sooner forget, but in "A Distant War," nothing compared to the fight with his past.

No matter what the season, it often feels like you don't have a spare minute to enjoy a book. But twenty minutes now, an hour later, and you'll finish "Harbor Lights" in no time.

You'll have no problem at all entering the tattered world inside this book, or diving into the addicting tales. Author James Lee Burke encapsulates his storytelling prowess in smaller bites that can be taken alone or as a whole. Put them end-to-end, though, and you'll see that the tales are linked, subtly and loudly, with turns of phrase, names and places that wink at readers and keep the stories tied. You'll have fun finding those little breadcrumbs, even as you're busy turning pages and trying to keep your hair from standing on end.

This short-story collection is a great introduction to Burke's work, if you're new. If you're a fan already, what are you waiting for?  "Harbor Lights" is waiting. Missing it is something you won't be able to stomach.