Misfits and Other Heroes by Suzanne Burns

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Book Reviews
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Of all the recurring food details found in Suzanne Burns’s short stories, one in particular sticks out: metallic nonpareils, those edible bb’s used as cake decorations.  This detail fittingly parallels the ideas her book’s title raises about its characters.  They’re not what the general public might consider normal people.  They’re strange, either physically speaking or because of the way they rationalize situations.  They’re oddballs.

In her first full-length collection, Misfits and Other Heroes, Burns approaches conventional subject matter—unrealistic expectations of love, rifts between social classes, and the search for personal identity—through some unlikely people.  Sure, the book has its share of little people, giants, and characters with extra limbs or missing eyes.  But more often, she deals with the obsessed, the perfectionists, in several roles: bakers, writers, a miniaturist, an actor, as well as husbands and wives.

The misfits in Burns’s collection rarely fit a circus-freak mold; but when they do show attributes of conforming to one, they’re never the point-of-view character.  In these cases, the narrator or focal character is seemingly normal in appearance, yet they take on the role of outsider.  In “Tiny Ron,” a female reporter (of average size) tries to infiltrate the world of her husband, Ron (the world’s second smallest man), in an attempt to better understand him.  This desire stems from the physical abuse he inflicts on her.  She’s willing to forgive him for his actions because, due to his size, he’s unable to cause her physical pain. Ron’s stature corresponds with his emotional size, a rationalization his wife makes in order to connect with him and regain a sense of empowerment.

Merilee, a young white woman and the main character in “Triad,” is fascinated by her boyfriend’s physical abnormality.  Alano—an Hispanic man, two years removed from high school—has three hands and wants nothing more than to have the third removed.  Everyone, aside from Merilee, is on board with his desire to conform: “To be normal.  Accepted.  Finally, and blissfully, ignored.”  Their relationship and conflicting views on whether or not Alano should keep his third hand acts as commentary on differences between class, gender, and race.

Body image is a major component of the stories in this collection; not necessarily in terms of deformity, but more so in the context of what is deemed socially desirable.  The women in “Flambé” and “Bittersweet” rely on their baking talents to attract men or achieve success.  Whether family, society, or an attractive actor has told them they don’t possess physical beauty, they carry the stigma of believing this to be true.  It becomes part of their identity, which raises cynicism and delusion to unhealthy levels.

A misfit is classified as such by society; and in the worlds of these stories, this is no different.  Burns sets many of these stories in small towns in order to show the ways her characters are outsiders.  In “The Interest of Marcia,” “Tourists,” and “The Widow,” the focal characters play the role of Straight Woman.  They see themselves as the sane ones, while everyone else appears to be bat-shit crazy.  And since there are no secrets in small town, the neighbors know all about their odd behaviors: Marcia’s inability to fend off Claire, an over-aggressive neighbor whose past mirrors hers; Olive’s strange attachment to a giant wax sculpture because “the world remembers giants”; or Samantha’s inability to accept her husband’s death.

Burns’s ability to create quirky and odd characters—while they’re compelling and well crafted—isn’t even her greatest strength as a writer.  Where she truly shines is in the way she develops meaning and emotional depth from both the conventional and the peculiar.  The oddballs in her stories aren’t used as a gimmick, and they’re certainly not pedestrian.  And while they might not look, act, or think the way others in their worlds want them to, they’re people with substance, who have earned the reader’s attention and compassion.

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