Monday, May 13, 2013

The Burn Palace

Reviewed by Gary Carden

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns
                                                    New York:  Blue Rider Press
                                                    $27.95 - 464 pages

  Stephen Dobyns has written twenty novels and over ten volumes of poetry; however, he is difficult to “classify.”  His writing is praised by big league names as varied as Francine Prose and Stephen King, but he is most famous for a “sexual harassment” charge brought against him while he was teaching at Syracuse University. (Allegedly, he was overheard making “salty and crude” comments at a party.)  After reading a complete account of his “crime” that was recently published by Francine Prose, I decided I liked him even more than before.

   Dobyns often writes about small towns - especially those that have fallen on hard times.  In this instance, the town is Brewster, New Jersey.  Once a community with a thriving economy, the town has gradually lost its industry as well as its farming/fishing resources.  Unemployment is high and the local citizens seem resigned to the fact that “the good life,” like Interstate 95, has passed them by. For Dobyns, towns like Brewster are  crucibles in which a few random ingredients when mixed together could easily ignite a chain reaction which could produce disaster.  Are you ready?  Here we go!

   When a nurse at the local hospital returns from a sexual encounter with a doctor, (they meet each night in an empty room in the cardiology ward) she discovers that a new baby has vanished.  It its place, she finds a six-foot, red and yellow snake. The nurse goes into hysterics. Peggy Summers,the mother of the missing child seems relieved that the baby is missing.  When questioned, she admits that she has no idea who the father is since he wore a mask. “He could be the Devil,” she says. An insurance adjuster named Hartmann shows up at the local coffee shop, the Brewster Brew, asking questions about Native American artifacts and witches.  Shortly after, the adjuster turns up dead near the local swamp. He has been stabbed and scalped.  The local police chief (acting) Baldy Banaldo is bewildered and clueless.

   Suddenly, the town is invaded by coyotes.  No, seriously, the coyote population has been growing  in New England and local vets have noted that they are becoming “more aggressive” and seem to be larger than the average coyote. There has been an alarming increase in the reports about missing cats and dogs. A local eccentric, Ronnie MacBride vanishes. MacBride has a penchant for sleeping in doorways in his sleeping bag. As word spreads about the missing baby, local speculation becomes increasingly irrational. There is talk about Satanists, Wiccan covens, Native American ghosts and  human sacrifice. Carl Krause, an unstable psychopath has quit taking his medication and is wandering the street growling and giving his neighbors hostile stares.  Could all of these events be related? Local ministers wonder if it is “the Latter Days.”

   At the heart of this surreal novel, Dobyns has placed  a collection of delightful characters who provide ballast for the action. The two young boys, Hercel McGarty and Baldo Banaldo (notorious for their shenanigans and pranks) serve as a kind of counter balance to the darkness and brutality in Burn Palace. Baldo, the son of the acting police chief, has been banned from the library and suspended from school because of his prize possession, a “fart box” which he occasionally activates just to “liven things up.” Hercel owns the colorful snake that ends up in the maternity ward (he didn’t put it there).  In addition, Hercel has recently discovered that he has the ability to make small objects move by staring at them. Carl Krause is his new step-father, and Carl hates Hersel. The tension builds and everyone spends a lot of time listening to the yipping of coyotes at night.

   Out of the excessive number of characters in this novel, I will mention two more.  Woody Potter and Bobbie Anderson.  Both are state troopers.  As they attempt to deal with the bizarre details surrounding the theft of a baby, their lives are changed. Woody, divorced, lonely, depressed and shy begins a torrid love affair with Jill Franklin, a reporter from the local paper. Bobbie, who is black, handsome, cool and drives a sexy 370Z Nissan with leather seats. The two troopers are compatible and become best friends.

   Ah, but wait!  I haven’t explained the significance of the title, The Burn Palace.  Just outside Brewster is a crematorium that the local wits call “the burn palace.”  Eventually, Woody and Bobbie learn that it is doing an impressive business. Corpses flow at a steady rate from the local hospital and Brewster’s retirement community, Ocean Breeze.  People couldn’t be dying at such an alarming rate unless ...they had help!  Now, Dobyns adds a new ingredient to bizarre mix. Body brokers - people who sell body parts to medical schools. There are even a few spin-offs, like people who “harvest” items like pacemakers, gold teeth and jewelry.  When the two troopers get permission to exhume some recent interments, they find coffins containing a mix of mannequins and left-over body parts.  Before we reach the final chapters, the action has become outrageous and over-the-top.  As Samhain (Halloween) approaches, the town of Brewster resembles a convention center as Wiccan, Satanists, CNN, baby-brokers, pimps and drug-pushers  come to town.  Dobyns manages to add an amazing number of dogs, both genial and dangerous, and including golden retrievers, German Shepherds and Bouviers. What else? Carl Krause finally begins to kill. He starts with a cat, then kills his wife and goes looking for more victims. Then, it begins to of those heavy one that closes Brewster down. Oh, my, the coyotes are getting louder.

   If you are a devotee of a type of fiction that blends the supernatural and the murder mystery, you will enjoy Burn Palace, which pays tribute to such classics as Stephen King’s Carrie (telekinesis) and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.  At times, Baldo and Hercel resemble some latter day version of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  This novel is heavily seasoned with black humor and has a generous supply of colorful characters, including an opera-singing trooper named Bingo, an exceptionally foul-mouthed policewoman with a penchant for emerald-green pants suits and Vultura, the Satanist, who threatened to turn Baldy Banaldo into a toad.  Occasionally, the reader may wonder what became of the kidnapped baby and the snake.  Never mind.

   Discard your disbelief, strive to accept the bizarre and unexpected.... and enjoy.


  1. Gary you sure write good book reviews! You'd make me read the bible if it could be told as good as you do it. I've put BURN PALACE on my ever-growing list and seeing if it's in my local library.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Found the book at the library, just began it. Now let's hope I find enough time to read it (before falling asleep as I try to read in the evening). Intriguing plot, and different writing style than I'm used to.

  4. Alice, this author is an excellent poet. I remember a collection that he published many years ago called "Cemetery Nights." My favorite line that he composed goes: Each thing I do/I hurry through/So I can do something else."

  5. Gary, I got it and have read it! Even though it's not my usual reading genre, it was a very good page-turning book. It did take me a little more than the 5 pages it took Stephen King to "get into it" though. Actually I learned quite a few things as I read it, and learning new things, as Martha Stewart has mentioned, is always a good thing! I do like poetry so I'll add "Cemetery Nights" to my list of reads. I love finding new authors, and the line of poetry you quote sorta describes how I live my life these days. Thanks for the leads.