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Tom Chaney: The Battered Innocence in Us

Of Writers And Their Books: The Battered Innocence in Us. Tom says the yearning for leaving, for a lesson just out of reach, gives both Burke and Warren stature in the art of short fiction where quality is defined by neither plot nor character, but by the awakening in the character of an awareness which cannot be undone. This column first appeared 6 June 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Heat Lightning

By Tom Chaney

The Battered Innocence in Us

When I pick up a James Lee Burke novel, I get set for a stomach-wrenching, moral roller coaster ride. Not a one of his characters who must confront himself fails to do so without taking me along for the ride.

I just discovered his 1985 short story collection The Convict. There be not a dud among the nine included, but the title story is the clincher.

Two convicts escape near New Iberia, Louisiana, sometime not long after World War II.

When Will Broussard, his wife, and their son Avery return to their place from town, they hear of the escape of the two convicts. Avery tells the story.

One of the escapees fetches up in a shed on the Broussard place and Will tends to his wounds, gives him some canned goods, and points the way to flee. Against his wife's urging, he does not call the law.

The next night wearing different clothes he has stolen, the convict returns with a knife with which he has either wounded or killed. The father this time reports him to the sheriff who captures him. Broussard tells the sheriff just how he had helped the man the day before.

"The same man who turned him in also helped him escape?" says the sheriff. "Who's going to believe a story like that, Will?"

"I'm afraid you're fated to be disbelieved," Mother said, and kissed my father on the cheek.

"It's the battered innocence in us."

Avery tries to understand and is soothed by strawberries and plums and hand-cranked ice cream as he falls asleep hearing "the heat thunder roll once more, like a hard apple rattling in the bottom of a barrel and then die somewhere out over the Gulf."

He awakens when his father carries him up to bed, "I knew from the beat of his heart that [Father] and I had taken pause in our contention with the world."

The undefinable lesson that Avery learns is close to that of the boy in Robert Penn Warren's fine short story, "Blackberry Winter." That boy wants to follow the tramp away from home as he leaves in mud time. The yearning for leaving, for a lesson just out of reach, gives both Burke and Warren stature in the art of short fiction where quality is defined by neither plot nor character, but by the awakening in the character of an awareness which cannot be undone.

Neither boy can ever be the same. Both have somehow shed their innocence.

Burke's other eight stories have their virtues whether it be the man's reliving of the Cheerio and Duncan yo-yo contests in "Taking a Second Look" or the pilot's ordering a truck load of fresh manure to be dumped in the front yard of Klaus Stroessner whom he believes is a Nazi fugitive and whom he knows is having sex with his wife.

And in "Losses" when the student understands that Sister Uberta's cruelty arises from the loss she suffered when her pre-convent love -- the drowned sailor -- died. "I'd be afraid to see what dark shapes lay below its turbulent surface . . . and I would sit quietly on the side of the bed, awaiting the gray dawn and the first singing of birds, and mourn God's people for just a moment lest our innocence cause us to slip down the sides of the world beyond the tender, painful touch of humanity."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2015-06-07 02:30:13
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