This latest collection by writer Dan Burns mines the innermost conflicts experienced by each tale’s characters to produce a work in which the parts are as powerful as the whole. The five stories within invite the reader on a journey that begins with personal anguish and doubt. Every step along the way is defined by an ordinariness that makes slipping into another person’s shoes easy, though the path is rife with plenty of emotional pitfalls, discomfort and pain. The underlying promise of positive change is the carrot that keeps the reader reading.
In “Redemption,” the despondency and losses of old age are tenderly unfurled when curmudgeonly widower and writer, Anson Miller, juxtaposes his livelier past with a more solitary lifestyle in a rural Montana town. When a troubled nephew lands unexpectedly in his peaceful orbit, both are forced to face hard truths and consider new avenues for traversing life. Sebastian Drake, the private investigator from Burn’s previous novel, “Fine Lines,” takes centerstage in “The Plight of Maximus Octavius Reinhold.” Against the setting of a rural Wisconsin saloon, the cool, collected Drake finds himself confronting a gunslinging woman who may or may not be truly scorned. End of life quandaries morph from the natural to the sci-fi in “Hardwired,” a contemplation on life, death and the surprising connection between a father and son. The ocean in all its moods serves as a metaphor in “Adrift at Sea.” Dissatisfied with his existence as a landlubber, a former seaman forfeits stability and what he considers to be unworthy distractions for the uncertainties and hardships of life at sea. In one of the collection’s strongest stories, “The Final Countdown,” an earnest youngster living in a futuristic world struggles with love, loyalty and life’s harsh realities. When a program to save earthly resources by ridding it of its more “useless” residents touches him personally, the boy must choose between emotional destruction and resolve. The book’s final story is the novella, “Grace,” which places a magnifying glass over a day in the life of a recovering alcoholic as he reacts to years of emasculation by a critical wife and mother-in-law. When he takes an uncharacteristic stand and saunters down to the local dive bar, things get sticky and interesting, thanks to a cast of characters that are not only colorful, but just as mired in all of life’s glorious muckiness. No one is really who they initially seem, including a killer-for-hire whose assignment goes surprisingly awry.
Pencil drawings by illustrator Kelly Maryanski are featured throughout–a curious addition as they do not add any useful context to the stories. It gives the work a sort of picture book quality, which feels out of place in this kind of adult literature. In concluding his book, Burn’s also opted to lay out the reasoning and inspiration behind his work. While some readers might find this kind of “drawing back the curtain” interesting, the revelations seemed to tidy things up a bit too much and conveyed a sense of reader distrust.
Storyteller Dan Burns explores the imperfect lives of imperfect people as they face conundrums that threaten all they thought they knew about life in GRACE: STORIES AND A NOVELLA. The humanity of these flawed, but likeable characters connects with readers on a visceral level, inviting them to consider the possibilities of experiencing meaningful metamorphosis in the face of seeming futility.
~Libby Wiersema for IndieReader