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The Convict and Other Stories, James Lee Burke
Pocket Reprint, 2009
Louisiana State University Press originally published this small volume of nine stories in 1985. Their intensity, however, have not been diminished by time. Four of the stories are about war and the effect it has on individuals—both warriors and civilians. For me, these were the best stories of the book, three of which bear noting.
"Losses" takes place at St. Peter's Catholic School in New Iberia, LA (Burke's home) in 1944. The cast includes Father Melancon, the parish priest; Sister Uberta, a teacher; and a passel of somewhat unruly fifth graders. Claude, a student and the son of a mean drunkard, narrates. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that Claude was doing a retrospective of my life. Until, that is, Sister Uberta begins to act very strangely—and there I have to leave it or else spoil it.
"When It's Decoration Day" switches to the Civil War just after Sherman had set fire to Atlanta. This is the longest story in the book, and it follows a rag-tag bunch of Confederate soldiers making their way to Alabama away from the Yankees. The narrator is Wesley Buford, a sixteen-year-old boy from S. Carolina and one of the only survivors or non-captured in the battle at Kennesaw Mountain.
Burke doesn't pussyfoot around in this story: this is in-your-face war, as descriptive and gory as anything he has written. A regiment of Yankees has doubled around from Atlanta to Alabama, where Buford and his fellow soldiers fight the valiant fight. The final sentence is a stunner and not one I will soon forget. (Again, spoilage, despite the fact that Amazon.com's product reviewer revealed it.)
"Lower Me Down with a Golden Chain" takes place in Guatemala during a rebel uprising. The nameless American narrator is a journalist who has access to both Guatemalan Army Captain Ramos and a rebel leader. The Army is equipped with a U.S. Marine Corp. howitzer, and the journalist is outraged when the Captain blows a rebel contingent to hundreds of body parts.
The rebels, in turn, burn a local village bus filled with civilians—men, women, children, infants—and the journalist is both infuriated and sickened.
This is where Burke makes his strongest stand against war—and the reason why I believe the reissue of these stories at this time is not a coincidence. Captain Ramos asks him what is different about what the Guatemalans do from what the Americans did in Korea. in Vietnam, and to our Southern Blacks with vigilantes and the KKK. Ramos tells the journalist,
"Ah, my friend, you can afford to be a moralist because you are not a participant."
Because I wasn’t looking for them, lines like Ramos’s sucker-punched me repeatedly. All nine of these stories attest to Burke’s powerful mastery of evoking emotion, be it positive or negative—there is no middle ground here in the boxing ring of good versus evil.
Highly recommended for enthusiasts of short stories.