Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review - St Burl's Obituary

The last of the trio of mini book reviews to catch up on is St Burl's Obituary by Daniel Akst (MacMurray & Beck, 1996, 370 pages). I picked this up cheaply on eBay a while back solely on the strength of it being a 1997 PEN/Faulkner award finalist.

I have had a lot of luck reading my way through the PEN/Faulkner lists (well, not luck I guess since they are award winners and nominees...). This was no exception. It is described as "a rollicking burlesque on death, resurrection, and dinner." I suppose that works. It is the story of an obese man, Burleigh Bennett, whose life revolves around food, and who writes obituaries for a New York City paper. He is a social misfit whose passion is all things food (and wine). One night, there is a gangland slaying of three men in the restaurant of which Burl is a part owner, and Burl sees (and is seen by) the suspected shooter. Burl is expected to eventually testify as the police try to make a case against the crime boss responsible for the hit. Instead, Burl takes a bunch of cash, disappears from his own life, drops off the grid entirely, and makes his way out West.

The resulting tale of travel on the run, binge eating, homelessness, gastric bypass surgery, faked death, assumed identity and lots of other things culminating in a return to New York City make for a fascinating read. I found there to be some far-fetched and head scratching parts that I didn't quite buy into, but it was a compelling book, all the more so because of its unusual nature. I don't think I have read another book quite like this; it was different and refreshing. While I wouldn't go so far as to say it was a great book necessarily, it was a very good book and well worth the time. I have heard it said that there are only five plots in all of literature. If that's true then this was certainly an unusual variant of one of those five.

Another solid 3.5 stars out of 5. Quirky, interesting, and I liked the food parts, being a foodie myself. Leaning close to 4 stars but maybe not quite there. Or maybe. OK, let's call it 4 stars.

As an aside, I liked this book well enough to search out what else Daniel Akst has written since this, published 18 years ago. The answer is...not much of anything from a fiction perspective, although his non-fiction resume is pretty impressive. This is a shame. I'd read another book by him anytime.

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