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Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burnsby David Margolick
Synopses & Reviews
American author John Horne Burns (1916–1953) led a brief and controversial life, and as a writer, transformed many of his darkest experiences into literature. Burns was born in Massachusetts, graduated from Andover and Harvard, and went on to teach English at the Loomis School, a boarding school for boys in Windsor, Connecticut. During World War II, he was stationed in Africa and Italy, and worked mainly in military intelligence. His first novel, The Gallery (1947), based on his wartime experiences, is a critically acclaimed novel and one of the first to unflinchingly depict gay life in the military. The Gallery sold half a million copies upon publication, but never again would Burns receive that kind of critical or popular attention.
Dreadful follows Burns, from his education at the best schools to his final years of drinking and depression in Italy. With intelligence and insight, David Margolick examines Burns’s moral ambivalence toward the behavior of American soldiers stationed with him in Naples, and the scandal surrounding his second novel, Lucifer with a Book, an unflattering portrayal of his experiences at Loomis.
"Margolick's dutiful profile of writer John Horne Burns — whose successful 1947 novel The Gallery was followed by two ill-received titles — fills a needed hole in American literary biography. Margolick (Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock) chronicles Burns's upbringing and education in Massachusetts — where he was raised between two worlds, being both well-to-do and Irish Catholic — his prewar years teaching at a school he would later fictionally eviscerate, his war service in North Africa and Italy, his success with The Gallery and return to teaching, his subsequent literary stinkers, and return to Italy. Though the book's fast pace accomplishes the difficult task of evoking sympathy for the generally unlikeable Burns, Margolick makes only shallow attempts to examine his subject's contradictions. Particularly puzzling are the few supporting characters who loom large in Burns's life: his mother; an old pupil with whom he developed a bond; not to mention — most peculiar for a book claiming to address Burns's sexuality and the trials of mid-century life as a gay man — his lovers. All secondary characters are introduced abruptly; the boyfriend with whom Burns spent many of his final years, before his sudden and premature death, earns only two sentences of independent page time. Still, the book largely hits its mark, and an oft-forgotten literary figure receives overdue attention. (June)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
David Margolick is the author of five books, including Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song (Harper Perennial, 2001), Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink (Vintage, 2006), and Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock (Yale University Press, 2011). He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a Loomis School alum.
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