22 October 2014

Dreadful - John Horne Burns


by David Edgerley Gates


The big books that came out of the Second World War are THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and THE YOUNG LIONS. They were successful at the time, and they're still read, if not the Irwin Shaw so much, which is a shame.

My dad, though, who was himself a Navy vet - the North Atlantic, the Med, and later the Pacific - had a soft spot for John Horne Burns' THE GALLERY, which is a series of linked stories about Naples, under Allied occupation. It's fallen between the cracks, these days.



I discovered an odd, tangential connection of my own to Jack Burns, when I went to the Loomis boarding school, in the 1960's. He'd taught at Loomis, after the war, and then got mired in a scandal of his own making. THE GALLERY had been published in 1947, and got terrific reviews. Jack was on the cover of Saturday Review. A little full of himself - or past caring - he gave an interview to the Boston GLOBE where he waxed snide about Loomis' provincialism. It didn't sit well with the headmaster, the imperious Nathaniel Horton Batchelder, who called Jack on the carpet. Not long afterwards, Jack and Loomis parted ways.



The next novel he published was LUCIFER WITH A BOOK, a poisonous diatribe about a thinly-disguised New England prep school. You wouldn't find it in the Loomis library. And by the time I got there, Jack Burns was the name nobody spoke out loud. There was something else, too.


Jack was gay. He didn't come out of the closet until after he'd left, but it was pretty much an open secret with most of the Loomis faculty, if not the boys. This isn't what put him in Dutch with Batchelder, one of those muscular Christians whose world-view probably didn't admit of Jack's persuasions, but it was one last nail in his coffin.

One of those odd coincidences, another guy who was at Loomis, a few years after I was, is David Margolick, who got interested enough in the Jack Burns mystery to write a biography, DREADFUL. David and I wrote a couple of letters back and forth, it happens, but I couldn't shed much light on the contretemps, other than the enormous silence that descended whenever Jack's name came up. To me, the interesting thing is that David's curiosity was put in play by that very silence. In other words, banishing Jack from living memory only served to whet our appetites, the temptation in the forbidden. You might even find there's a metaphor, here. Jack Burns drawn to the flame.


He wasn't, by all reports, a very nice guy to be around, and he certainly didn't suffer fools gladly. What struck me, re-reading THE GALLERY again, is how chilly it is, even contemptuous. His sympathies aren't invested. You begin to feel sorry for the characters because he so obviously isn't, which is off-putting, as if they really aren't worth his time. I'm not suggesting in the least that this is homosexual self-loathing, but the distance he puts between you and the book creates a disturbance. You wonder why you should care. I don't think this is a conscious effect. I do think it betrays a deep, glacial reserve in Burns. He won't let himself show any weakness. He may have been like that in life, brittle and guarded, all too vulnerable.

He drank himself to death, in Florence, in 1953. He was thirty-six.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

5 comments:

janice law said...

Sounds like an interesting writer. I must look up The Gallery.

Leigh Lundin said...

Interesting. I know what you mean about that brittleness. I've seen that in a couple of brilliant people and it only serves to isolate them.

Alistair MacLean was my favorite WW-II-era author. Love his novels, at least anything not set in California.

No one asked, but my favorite WW-I novel was Erskine Childer's The Riddle of the Sands.

Dixon Hill said...

Fascinating! And now I want to find and read The Gallery.

Flower Spy said...

Jack Burns sounded like a controversial guy who self imploded. Great description, btw: "...a little full of himself - or past caring - he gave an interview to the Boston GLOBE..." Wouldn't mind reading The Gallery now.

Berkeley Edit said...

Velma? I love the name. Anyway there is a great novel about World War II, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, that, like the Gallery, seems to have slipped through the slats. It is THE WALL by JOHN HERSEY.