cover image Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns

Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns

David Margolick. Other Press, $24.95 (320p) ISBN 978-159051-571-6

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)