Harbor Lights by James Lee Burke

Short stories and a novella from one of the finest living writers of American literature, these grim and gritty tales are propelled by a doomed sense of honor, dignity and justice that always leads to tragedy in the service of truth and right.

Harbor Lights by James Lee Burke
Atlantic Monthly
Hardcover | $28
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Harbor Lights is an extraordinarily fine work of literature. It is a collection of short stories and one novella which exhibit a powerful and viscerally moving authorial skill. Burke has been compared to Hemingway and Henry James but this reader thinks a comparison to Steinbeck most apt. This reader is reminded of the arc of the entries in his “The Red Pony’ collection. The tragic, heroic protagonists of these tales are uniformly self-destructive but for all the right reasons. An unfailing sense of honor and dignity are woven into their actions. Their decisions, never serving their best interests, are always driven by a respect for human dignity, justice and kindness in the face of evil and prejudice. A traditional definition of the word hero, in fact.


These stories are gritty, so much so that they leave the feel of dust in the mouth and sand between the toes. Set in locations from Louisiana to Montana with Colorado and Wyoming on the way place them firmly in non-urban landscapes that are rife with the dark motives of people who are not responsible to society in general for their behavior and so feel free to engage in a variety of foul deeds with petty and cruel motives. Opposed to this are Burke’s modern-day knights: armoured only in their own honor and susceptible to grievous injuries sustained in aid of justice. Add to this his truly remarkable ability to describe nature in fresh terms; the sky, the water, the woods, the weather. These are some of the marks of a first-class writer. Add to that searingly believable dialogue, true to the spirit of his characters and their world. These are among the finest short stories this reader has come across in some time. The author should be considered among the royalty of American literature.