Sunbaked memories of the southern Gulf Coast act as a backdrop for my personal sense of nostalgia. Sugar-white sands, quaint little towns, and the awe-inspiring beauty of New Orleans looming in the distance across Lake Ponchartrain provide the setting for stories I would write if ever I could find the words. But a lot has changed on the Gulf Coast (and even more was invisible to me before) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and broken levees that flooded America’s southern shores and our consciousness on August 29, 2005. Driving along the scenic highway from Pensacola, Florida to New Orleans in March, 2007, I found myself astounded, angered, heartbroken, and all this came only from the stories changing scenery can tell. Better stories, better insight, better understanding of what it means to grow up Southern and, more specifically, like the water people of the Gulf Coast can be had by reading James Lee Burke’s newest collection of short stories, Jesus Out to Sea.
As one may imagine from the title, Jesus Out to Sea takes its readers into physical locations and depths of understanding that are surprising and perplexing, even as they reveal the truest qualities of humanity—need, heartache and helplessness amid kindness, compassion and perseverance. Featuring eleven stories that, for the most part, span the coast and several decades including the post-Katrina era, Burke guides his readers through a journey defined by location, culture, and opportunity. This journey is sometimes as coarse and trying as a hot sand gauntlet and sometimes as fine as a sprinkle of rain across climbing, protective, uniting bougainvillea. In all cases, though, the grittiest truths are told as Burke reveals human deprivation and depravity via stories that are both meticulously told and absolutely honest in their revelations.
Even as Jesus Out to Sea focuses on Gulf Coast culture, it never fails to demonstrate universal themes and understanding. Burke is subtle in his move to share these universal themes as he begins his collection with a tale set in a place quite familiar to him, the Midwest at wintertime, to focus on a retired college professor who is a transplant from Louisiana. Telling the story of Roger Guidry, “Winter Light” exposes the secrets that we hide to reveal that error is a condition, not a plight, of humanity and that knowledge sometimes requires action. Guidry, a man of purpose and understanding, neither sits by to watch foolish decisions be made nor tolerates ill-treatment. When Guidry wonders whether it is prudent “to speak his mind, as a child would...then spend his day rationalizing his impetuosity,” he and the reader find that it is the moment of action that makes the story and the man. Even more subtly, just before he brings us home to the Gulf Coast, Burke takes us far across the ocean to Vietnam via “The Village” to reiterate that there are repercussions even for well-made attacks and defenses.
Each of the characters Burke creates is believably wrought through trial and tribulation that seem decidedly Southern, but there can be no denying that every person, regardless of race, creed, gender, or nationality, has felt the heartache, confusion and hope that Burke’s characters experience and embody. From the stoic but determined Roger Guidry in “Winter Light,” to the mind-altered and heartbroken soldier in “The Village,” to the “Water People”—Bobby Joe, Skeeter, and W.J—who work the oil rigs of the Gulf Coast, to the men and women, such as Lisa in “Mist,” who are prostituted to various needs, to the men—Tony, Miles, and their narrator best buddy—who once had music and now have only hope in the final story, “Jesus Out to Sea,” Burke directs his reader’s attention to the human condition set stunningly along the Gulf Coast where live oaks weep Spanish moss and “bougainvillea drips as brightly as drops of blood on...latticework.”
Aligning images of compassionate nature to the notion of a savior who transcends heartache, floods, and death, Burke offers his readers a paperback Eucharist that ignites the heart and mind with questions of birth, death, renewal, and redemption. And, as subtly as he achieves numerous other messages, Burke demonstrates that—while there are no easy answers—there can be hope amid adversity as Jesus floats through the flooded Ninth Ward and the narrator muses, “considering the company I’m in—Jesus and Miles and Tony...I got no grief with the world.”