Neihart's 'Burning Girl': a stage in gay fiction

April 04, 1999|By Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

"Burning Girl," by Ben Neihart. Weisbach Morrow. 256 pages. $24.

If "Burning Girl" had been only as long as its first sentence, it might have been a success -- at least as magnetic refrigerator haiku: "Drew Burke, who was twenty, thrived in manly Baltimore." An auspicious beginning -- quite possibly one of the wriest that a lightweight gay novel has ever had. But that, sadly, is one of the few good things that can truthfully be said about Ben Neihart's sham pulp thriller, in which, our man Drew discovers, over the course of one long night, that his boyfriend and his best friend are murderers.

In the evolutionary landscape of queer fiction, "Burning Girl" distinguishes itself because it makes the sexuality of its main character subordinate and incidental to the plot. Neihart has, thereby, emerged from the primordial ooze of the coming-out story, but only just. The tale he has chosen to tell, and the breathless, overweening mood in which he tells it, befit a television B movie of the week. The dialogue is worthy of an afternoon soap: "I loved you before Jake did. I've loved you longer. And I've got your baby, Drew."

Bathetic declarations of love and paternity notwithstanding, relationships between the principal characters are as superficial as the characters themselves. Their argot is sprinkled with such an infuriating supply of valley girl bywords -- e.g. "I mean," "like," "you know," "whatever" -- that before you've finished reading the first 30 pages, you'll wish someone would make it a federal crime to utter such tripe. Most affection gets expressed in terms like these: "I dig you and I dig having sex with you." No one, alas, ever says anything intelligent.

This is all the more infuriating because, underneath it all, Neihart isn't a bad writer. His descriptions are sometimes lucid and nimbly poetic: "As headlights jostled deeper and deeper, illuminating clearings and sharp furrows . . . Drew glimpsed a pale white face running a crooked path through the woods. . . He slammed the brakes, checking in the rearview mirror. The dark stillness poured toward him from deep in the trees, but he kept watching until all he saw was the silver-black glass. Nothing."

It's a shame he hides his potential behind so much cheap, trendy noise.

"Burning Girl" is perfect reading for lobotomized bartenders working slow nights, or bi-curious surfer dudes who are just learning to read, but it's not for anyone who wants more out of a book than boyish thriller-lite. If you'd like to see what "Burning Girl" or "Hey, Joe" might have been, see Michael Chabon's delightful "Wonder Boys," an exemplar of the smart person's good-dirty-fun genre that Neihart is aiming for and missing by miles.

Norah Vincent, who lives in New York City, is co-author of "The Instant Intellectual: The Quick and Easy Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured" (Hyperion, 1998). Her work has appeared in the New Republic, the New York Times, Lingua Franca and many other publications. She writes a regular column for the national gay and lesbian news magazine the Advocate.

Pub Date: 04/04/99

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