Harbor Lights

Image of Harbor Lights
Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
Atlantic Monthly Press
Reviewed by: 

“Wherever he takes you—to the steamy summers of the Deep South, to dingy bars and squalid dwellings, or to fragrant cherry orchards by a lake near Bigfork—Burke makes everything come to life.”

Harbor Lights, a story collection by bestselling author James Lee Burke, takes the reader through a wide geographical range and a time period beginning around the Depression era and spanning decades.

The first story in the collection looks back at 1942 Louisiana when a father, James Eustace Broussard, and his son, Aaron, are steering a boat in the Gulf of Mexico and come upon dead bodies floating in the water. The father puts in a Mayday call to the Coast Guard but we soon find out he omitted some details, which he later admits in a conversation with his son:

“A German submarine was out there. I saw its conning tower and periscope go underwater.”

“Why didn’t you tell the people that on the radio?”

“The government always knows this. But they don’t want to share their information.”

This vague conversation leaves the reader wondering. From there the story morphs into FBI agents questioning Broussard about finding the bodies . . . and then what ensues when they detain his friend Florence—all in an apparent effort to get him to reveal what he saw on the water. The reader assumes the agents are seeking information about the German submarine, but the author never makes this totally clear. The story ends with a glimpse of Aaron as an adult—a veteran of the Korean War and later, a troubled man who ends up doing a stint in prison—then a poignant reflection on his life:

“I try to consign these images to the past and not talk about them anymore. I almost get away with it, too. But one night a month I dream about green water sliding over sandbars and a ship burning brightly on the horizon and harbor lights that offer sanctuary from a world that breaks everything in us that is beautiful and good. In the morning I wake to darkness, calling my father’s name, James Eustace Broussard, wondering when he will answer.”

Although there is foretelling of Aaron’s complicated future, he does not appear in the second story, “Going Across Jordan,” which is disappointing. The murkiness of the opening story is even more disconcerting when followed by one completely unrelated—though both have characters who spend time in prison, which may create confusion for readers.

While some stories in the collection share characters from the same families, others are stand-alones and this causes a lack of cohesiveness. However, the themes of prison, violence, memories of war, despair, morality, survival, and the underbelly of society are consistently woven throughout Harbor Lights. Though grim in subject matter Harbor Lights shines with the author’s descriptive prose.

“By midsummer the first shafts of morning sunlight in West Texas can be like a wet switch whipped across your skin. A sunrise in Wyoming was never like that. The light was soft and filtered inside the barn where we slept, the air cool and smelling of sage and woodsmoke and bacon frying in the cookhouse. You could get lost in the great blue immensity of the dawn and forget there was any such thing as evil or that someplace down the road you had to die.”

Or this beautiful imagery:

“You know how summertime is down South. It comes to you in the smell of watermelons and distant rain and the smell of cotton poison and schools of catfish that have gotten dammed up in a pond that’s about to be drained. It comes to you in a lick of wet light on razor wire at sunup.”

Overall the realities in Harbor Lights are gloomy, but James Lee Burke makes hardship palpable by writing extremely convincing and often stunning settings. Wherever he takes you—to the steamy summers of the Deep South, to dingy bars and squalid dwellings, or to fragrant cherry orchards by a lake near Bigfork—Burke makes everything come to life.