In poetry, every word is selected for an exact shade of meaning, and not a single word appears that is not doing a specific job. So when an award-winning poet writes a novel, it’s no surprise to find the same kind of muscular language. Stephen Dobyns, who teaches creative writing at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, gives us just that in “The Burn Palace”: a story that rocks along without a word wasted.
A hurrying nurse, hotfooting it back to the newborn nursery after slipping away for a quickie with a doctor, finds to her horror that one of the babies has been replaced by a huge red-and-yellow snake.
Dobyns pulls back from that initial shock to give us a panorama of the small Rhode Island town where the hospital sits. Sounding very like the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” he pans across the rural outskirts and the business district, describing folks at their daily routines, zooming in on a few households to introduce us to people we will come to know well in a town that is about to go a little bit crazy.
With the snake-for-baby substitution still bouncing around the town’s conversations and gaining details true and false with every bounce, a murder on the edge of a swamp adds more grist for the gossip mill, and every new incident makes it harder for police to ignore occult overtones to the case. Aggressive coyotes are roaming the streets; dark ceremonies are rumored in the woods.
TV trucks arrive; police briefings get crowded as more agencies join the investigation. The rumor mill variously blames “insanity, Indians, kidnappers, black magic, free-floating malice.” Bricks are heaved through windows of the homes of suspected witches; even the vocabulary words assigned for the elementary school spelling test betray a sense of gathering darkness.
Dobyns paints this canvas with a skill worthy of another writer who makes a living creating and then destroying entire New England towns: Stephen King. (Fittingly, that’s who wrote the blurb on the back jacket of the book.) Personality quirks help us keep the players straight: a snappy wardrobe, a fondness for opera, a tendency to ask obnoxious questions in meetings, a love of practical jokes.
Dobyns gives us good guys to like and a trio of appealing kids who, of course, are menaced by seriously disturbed adults and those worrisome coyotes.
A pair of ambulance drivers ferry the unlucky to the funeral home and the “Burn Palace,” a nickname for the crematorium outside town.
It’s a police procedural at heart, as we follow the investigators from crime scene to crime scene, to interviews and those increasingly tense briefings. There’s also romance, or at least sex, since poet or no poet, the book was clearly written by a guy.
In fact, if you skipped the book jacket and just plunged into the story – which I always prefer to do; just let the story stand or fall on its own – you would not see overt poetry. Dobyns isn’t mixing his genres as much as some others. James Sallis comes to mind for prose bordering on poetry, and Louise Penny’s crusty poet character Ruth Zardo gets the credit for verses borrowed from Margaret Atwood, among others.
Dobyns writes a straight thriller, but his mastery of language puts the reader into empty streets swirling with bits of paper and dead leaves, makes us feel at one moment hurried along and at the next expansive and thoughtful, puts us inside the unsettled mind of a schizophrenic off his meds or the tidy mind of an nonagenarian whose daily walk is a major event. Read slowly (if you can!) to enjoy his craftsmanship.