Is passable good enough?

Best of the South, Vol I


I mentioned a few days ago that I have returned to reading short stories and am loving them.

The collection of stories I have on my reading desk now is Best of the South, selected and introduced by Anne Tyler. It contains twenty hand-picked “bests” from the first ten years  (1986-1995) of New Stories from the South, edited by Shannon Ravenel. I bought the book new, so it has been hanging around my house for almost twenty years.

Imagine my surprise when I realized the final story was “Water People” by some guy named James Lee Burke.

I was surprised because when I bought the book twenty years ago, I had never heard of Burke, who  now is one of my favorite authors.  Because of this, I had never read “Water People,” I guess because I didn’t make to the end of the volume.

Anne Tyler


Here is Anne Tyler’s blurb about Burke.

As a young man growing up on the Texas-Louisiana coast, James Lee Burke worked on the oil rigs in the Gulf.  His admiration for the hardworking, often inarticulate men he worked with is obvious in this story about a smoldering feud between two such men and the guilt it engenders.  He has said of these characters, “…even at age twenty, I knew their story was that of Chaucerian pilgrims.” James Lee Burke lives now in Montana.  He is the author of a very successful series of novels that feature the Cajun Detective, Robicheaux.  The most recent of these is Burning Angel.

In her introduction, Tyler discusses each story briefly in the context of what makes a story Southern.  She acknowledges that “Water People” is one of the three stories in the collection which doesn’t fit neatly into the “Southern short story” niche.  As she puts it, “The barge in James Lee Burke’s electric ‘Water People’ could have navigated some body of water other than a bay in the Gulf of Mexico.”

We’ll come back to that observation later.

Here’s the deal about my reading of “Water People.”

As James Lee Burke’s writing goes, I thought this particular story was only passable, not great, and certainly not on a par with many of Burke’s novels.

I hope the die-hard Burke fans out there will not accuse me of heresy for making such an observation.  Remember, I am one of you.

“Water People” demonstrates a truth I find comforting as a writer.

Authors sometimes don’t hit it on all cylinders. They get out of the zone.

Here’s the comforting part.

They keep at it even when they aren’t sure they have the words right.

There is no perfect story.  There is only the story on the page in front of the writer, the one of the moment.  When that moment passes, another comes the next day.

Maybe the next day the writer will be in the zone, maybe not.

She just keeps on writing.

Finally, I come back to Tyler’s observation about the locale of “Water People” as not crucial to the story.  I believe I understand her sentiment and don’t quibble with it.  However, Burke’s work is inextricably tied to the unique cultural flavor of south Louisiana. I can’t imagine the characters on that barge any place else.

That’s why even when Burke’s work is passable, it is genius.



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