Love is a messy thing. It flares, it aches and whines, and then embraces and laughs. None of that, however, comes through in Recalled to Life.
Peter O’Hara is an ambitious architect in Chicago. He wears wool suits and perfectly cut hair. He listens to classical music on his morning drive from the suburbs. Peter’s wife, Madeline, is a former journalist realigning her life as a novelist. And their eight-year old son is a good kid, keen on baseball, and desires the love of his father and grandfather alike, with a childlike intuition that is only heartening.
John Cheever would have put a cocktail in the kid’s hand, and Updike would have had the wife languidly doing laps next door at odd hours to see a pool boy or two. But author Dan Burns’s O’Hara family sits beyond such vividness and piquancy, which is fine: This is the Midwest, not some crazy east coast derision. Yet, where is the source of conflict? Enter Peter’s father, Jack.
Jack has been out of the picture for a while. And when he comes back to his son’s family, turmoil emerges. Even with that, however, the issues that swirl around Peter go unexplored. There is some potential for Jack to reveal a longstanding point of contention between him and his son. There is flirtation at the work place, there is a missing child, and there is an unusually placed word of comfort from Victor, the company’s big client—yet all are left undeveloped. Burns also misses a chance to develop characters like Madeline into three-dimensional figures. There are big themes at stake in Recalled to Life, yet the reader never gets to feel any of them through the characters.
This should have been a perfect Midwestern novel. The settings are recognizable locales, both suburb and city alike. There is baseball. There is a son and a father, a son and a grandfather, a husband. Hard workers. There is business and a desire to do the right thing.
However, it is clean. This novel is too clean. And while the conflicts offer insight, examine values, and attempt to dig at the root of familial roles, rarely does Burns, a teacher from LaGrange, seem to go outside of himself to take up the unexpected or delve more fully into the heartbreak and risk for which family life is so well known.
Some of the writing works, especially the dialogue pieces between Pop and his grandson at the dinner table, or when Jack sees an old cigar-smoking friend:
“Hey Jack—welcome back,” he shouted, smoke billowing from his mouth yellow-corn teeth clenched on a cigar that seemed to be a foot long. That particular saying was Howard’s own creation, and he used it every time he saw Jack, going on twenty years now. He was proud of it, and saying it made him smile like a kid.
Jack pulled his head back into the car as they passed. He said, “He must have said that to me a thousand times. ‘Hey, Jack—welcome back. Every time I walked into the shop. I like that things don’t change.’ He realized what he said and thought it ironic.
All in all, the book is too lean throughout, too clunky and slow moving. The work is heavy on description and overly detailed on unremarkable exposition. The slow pace negates some of the really good tension and ultimately under powers the story.
This is a first novel, and it reads like one. However, in spite of the flaws, contained in the book is the promise of a better writer. Cut the long sentences in half, change the wool suits to chinos, maybe add some booze, sex, or violence, or even just unfettered emotion, and Burns’s next novel should give the reader a lot more.
June 2013, Eckhartz Press
$15.95, paperback, 254 pages
Learn more about author Dan Burns.
—Reviewed by Mark Eleveld