Holden Caulfield still irritates me, though I have not read The Catcher in the Rye since before the century’s turn. Teenaged narrators made me crotchety when I was in my twenties. I have become much surlier since then.
So maybe I am not the most naturally sympathetic reviewer of a coming-of-age novel like Brandi Homan’s Burn Fortune. But maybe I am a good reviewer of it, because if it can hook me, it can hook even unlikely readers. I am certainly a lucky reviewer, because its teenaged narrator compelled me from her opening lines.
Holden’s voice might have scarred you as badly as it did me. You could hear nasality and bottomless self-pity in every sentence, and most of all in the word “phony.” Homan’s June has a far more interesting and appealing manner. Although she suffers at least as much as Holden (Burn Fortune has all the coming-of-age tropes: love experiments, familial estrangement, friend’s death, etc.), June maintains a stiff upper lip and a hard deadpan through to the last sentence.
She is—again, all the tropes are in place—a disaffected young Midwesterner, uncertain about everyone up to and including herself, desperate to find meaning in something somewhere. She tries but fails to find it in sex. She seems to find it in her obsession with dead film star Jean Seberg, and especially in Seberg’s role as Joan of Arc. (The resemblance between the names may be too heavy.) This obsession grows alongside her self-destructive activity, her friends’ steadily growing cruelty toward her, and her parents’ silent war with each other. Her comments on the films suggest her aspirations for life beyond her small-town confines.
Homan intersperses photographs—still shots from Seberg’s films—throughout the novel. The most important, repeated, and phallic of these is a shot of a tiara balanced on a sword. The photos remind me happily of W.G. Sebald’s novels, though you will not find any of his thickly textured histories or nearly endless paragraphs in Burn Fortune.
Instead, Homan offers a highly fragmented structure reminiscent of Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever. In both novels, the short, fast-moving sections pull the reader along (you can read Burn Fortune in two days), and they highlight quality prose. Homan writes some fine, admirable sentences. They are not as disjointed as Robison’s, but they are as hard, bitterly funny, and stripped of romance. I want to draw particular attention to her ability to memorably paint a character in a single line: “His grandmother is the type of person who would give you 50 bucks for your birthday after burning your favorite stuffed animal in a barrel out back.” She drops these knockout lines everywhere.
Homan ends the novel intelligently and darkly. I will not ruin the ending with any specific summary. I will, however, describe the V-shaped structure of many coming-of-age novels and films. Their protagonists descend into the muck of life and ascend wiser people. Homan eschews any sentimental, Hollywood ascent. Her ending will not earn her any meetings with big production companies, but it will satisfy the discerning reader. Burn Fortune is well worth your time.
Burn Fortune, by Brandi Homan. Clash Books, May 2019. 214 pages. $15.95, paper.
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.