Picks and Pans Review: The Surprise of Burning

updated 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Michael Doane

It's more than just a pun to say that this perplexing novel is consumed by its own metaphorical obsession with fire. Hardly a page goes by without a bomb, a gunshot, a bonfire, a match being struck; if fiery images aren't being used to describe the stars or light, they're applied to sex or pain. The how-many-fire-references-can-you-find game becomes most distracting just as the plot is resolving itself. Doane, author of a previous novel, The Legends of Jesse Dark, opens this book with an entrapping first chapter, in which an unwed mother is on her way to give birth in World War II London when the ambulance she's in is hit by a V-2 missile. She dies; her baby boy survives. The rest of the book, careening back and forth in time, focuses on a succession of quests. Grown to adulthood, the boy, Hunter Page, has become a freelance photographer (Algeria, the Middle East, Vietnam) and is looking for the father he never knew. His father is looking for Hunter; so is a shadowy government agency. In flashback, Hunter's mother, a '30s jazz singer, relentlessly looks for passion, in her music and her lovers. Hunter, meanwhile, has an infant son of his own to worry about. Doane adroitly keeps this strange mixture of plot lines coherent, and his imagery maintains an undertone of damnation—a sense of everyone trying to hold off the hellfire for one more day. His writing can resemble poetry wrenched into prose: "What we call ourselves makes a tragic difference to our points of view. Yesterday I was an orphan and today I'm Dada. I inventory myself for a remembered bleeding, imagining shrapnel where there isn't any. It's over now, the worst of it, but not the dreaming." There's intoxication in this novel, yet the plot structure that holds it up is clumsy at times. The mysterious government agency's reason for hounding Hunter, for instance, seems unconvincing at best. Such lapses, like the ultimately excessive language, break the novel's fragile tension, and the whole becomes less than the sum of its often stimulating, provocative parts. (Knopf, $17.95)

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