County of Offense
Galveston County, St. Mary Parish Louisiana
Attempted Murder, Assault, Assault with a Chicken, Un-named Other Major Crimes in the Interest of "No Spoilers"
Half of Paradise
To the Bright and Shining Sun
Lay Down My Sword and Shield
Two for Texas
The Lost Get-Back Boogie
The Neon Rain
Black Cherry Blues
A Morning for Flamingos
A Stained White Radiance
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead
Dixie City Jam
Purple Cane Road
Jolie Blon's Bounce
White Doves at Morning
Last Car to Elysian Fields
In the Moon of the Red Ponies
Jesus Out to Sea
The Tin Roof Blowdown
The Glass Rainbow
Feast Day of Fools
Light of the World
House of the Rising Sun
The Jealous Kind
Known Gang Affiliations
Date of Offense
Texas City, 1947 is a work of short fiction, included in Burke’s collection Jesus Out to Sea. The story’s title is a reference to the devastating industrial accident that occurred in Texas City on April 16, 1947, though the story actually takes place in South Louisiana. It’s told from the first-person viewpoint of Billy Bob Sonnier, a boy whose absentee father is off working the oilfields.
As with many of the self-sufficient Cajuns of his time, Billy Bob’s strained financial circumstances don’t much register with him as he goes about the everyday business of being a boy at a nearby Catholic convent school. But what does register is a home life that is becoming increasingly volatile. The juxtaposed tension between the boy’s troubled childhood and the industrial-sized blowout serves as a tense, high-stakes reminder that you don’t have to be doing anything wrong for the world's delicate machinery to throw a rod and put you in peril.
Billy Bob’s father was an adulterer—caught out by his mom, who eventually drives her car off the bridge and into the Atchafalaya River. This leaves Billy Bob and his brothers Weldon and Lyle, as well as his sister, Drew, at home alone while their father goes out to seek his oil patch fortune. Enter Mattie, his father’s cruel and broken live-in lover who comes to stay and help take care of the kids. And by help, I mean drink apricot brandy, chain smoke, go out on Saturday nights and exact cruelties on the children that far exceed neglect. Fortunately, Billy Bob finds an ally in Sister Roberta.
This story is a great appetizer for the fifth Dave Robicheaux novel, A Stained White Radiance--which follows wealthy Weldon Sonnier and his family in a twisted plot that involves the Klan, the CIA, gangsters and some pretty twisted family dynamics.
I don’t believe in spoilers when reviewing, but everything in Texas City, 1947 comes to a head, just as all things in life tend to do—sometimes with karmic justice, sometimes with pointless tragedy and sometimes in a sad and mysterious way that makes you question the control people have over their own beliefs and actions. And to young Billy Bob, the end result is every bit as explosive as that notorious day in 1947.
Back to that, by the way. “Industrial accident” is a polished euphemism for saying that in April of 1947 a big chunk of Texas blew the fuck up. Here’s how it happened: A French ship called the S.S. Grandcamp—which was loaded up with peanuts, twine, tobacco, small arms ammunition and bunker oil—was in the process of being loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer when a fire broke out onboard. The ship’s captain tried to put out the fire by routing steam into the cargo hold, which actually created nitrous oxide. At 9:12am the fertilizer detonated.
You see, it didn’t blow up in a cornfield. It blew up in Texas City. If you start near town at the head of the Houston Ship Channel it’s almost possible to slap on a hardhat and some steel-toe-boots then walk from tank to tank for 50 miles. The whole place is a shimmering sea of petrochemical refineries, tank batteries, distribution terminals, port infrastructure, docked vessels and complex industrial manufacturing and processing facilities.
When that first explosion blew, it caused a deadly chain reaction. It blew up a ship next to it called the High Flyer, which was filled with not only ammonium nitrate but also sulfur. The two make for a volatile mix, and when that ship blew it took a nearby ship called the Wilson B. Keene with it. The blast destroyed an entire Monsanto plant that was about 300 feet away. Flaming bits of debris set fire to giant tank farms. The explosion destroyed concrete warehouses, piers and grain elevators and humans and the whole thing truly was a disaster. And it lasted for three days!
The blast caused a fifteen-foot tidal wave that flooded the surrounding area. The waters of Galveston Bay boiled. Those working the docks simply disappeared. A docked barge was lifted out of the water and deposited a hundred feet inland by the blast. Two airplanes were downed. Windows shattered in Houston—which is about 42 miles away. At the time of the accident, my Cajun grandmother lived in Port Arthur, Texas. Her windows shattered like a bomb had gone off.
The Grandcamp’s 1.5-ton anchor was found two miles away.
James Lee Burke has been one of my family’s favorite authors since Neon Rain came out in 1987. He’s one of those writers that I always bought and read straight away, without giving it much thought. Now, looking back, I realize he’s been one of the most influential and enjoyable writers of my lifetime. I don’t think I’ve missed a single one of his books or short stories, and was overjoyed to hear that a piece of short fiction I wrote will be included alongside one of his stories in the upcoming anthology The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.
I’ve always enjoyed the setting, culture and atmosphere of Burke’s work. While my father’s side of the family is from the piney woods of East Texas, my mother’s family are all Cajuns from Louisiana and the Golden Triangle area (Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange). According to the ancestry.com DNA test I took, I should be walking around playing an accordion with my shirt pocket filled with maque choux.
So for me when Burke writes of Louisiana it always brings up childhood memories of my family and my mother’s stories about all my crazy Cajun relatives. Texas City, 1947 is no exception. Like many of Burke’s tales of South Louisiana, it’s a world of magnolia and wisteria, horn-rimmed glasses and fedoras, cigar smoke and boxwood radios and pirogues-full of good, old-fashioned Catholic symbolism. Not to mention Cajun superstition; when Billy Bob gets rheumatic fever, his father makes him wear a dime around his neck to “keep the gris-gris away.”
But even without all of this nostalgia on my part, the story easily carries its own water and more. Texas City, 1947 is not only a taut domestic suspense, but also a good opportunity to hear Burke write from the point of view of a child. I think he does this really well in a number of his stories, and it’s a tricky thing to pull off. The reader knows what’s happening in the bigger picture, but the narrator is locked into both the myopic fatalism of a young boy--as well as the unfiltered truth-seeing that sometimes comes more easily to kids than adults.
And just think: Texas City, 1947 is merely one story in Jesus Out to Sea. And all of them live up to the rich, thunderhead-on-the-horizon, Faulknerian expectation you probably have for Burke’s writing. So if you missed it the first time around, now’s your chance to pick up a copy and ride the shockwave yourself.
Verdict: Guilty of upholding Burke's reputation as one of the finest writers working today.
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