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

Image of Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns
Release Date: 
June 4, 2013
Other Press
Reviewed by: 

“We come away from Dreadful frankly puzzled and more than a little frazzled . . .”

It takes a hell of a lot of guts to name a book Dreadful.

All those years of effort in putting together a biography of the now obscure author John Horne Burns. All those interviews. All that digging through boxes of letters and old manuscripts—all to end up hoping against hope that critics on deadlines will avoid simple sentences like “Dreadful simply is.”

Truth be told Dreadful isn’t. But given its promise or even its subtitle (The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns) the tale ends up pretty flat.

By all accounts, Burns was a real pip. The kind of overeducated man who overpronounced his words, who would surely have been played in a movie by George Saunders (who, if memory serves, himself left behind a suicide note that read simply, “I’m bored.”) back when movies were made in black and white—or worse, by Clifton Webb with his nostrils flared.

The kind of guy for whom words like “fey” and “erudite” were coughed up as code for “gay, but quiet about it.”

He was, by all accounts, an unpleasant soul who saw himself as the smartest and most talented soul in the room and made sure to let everyone else know it. The kind of writer who works for a few years at a private boys’ school and then writes a roman à clef about it in which his biographer notes the following words were used to describe all the characters: “jealous, sycophantic, opportunistic, lecherous . . . obese, venous, pimply, greasy, decrepit. The men have breasts, the women mustaches.”

The kind of guy that Gore Vidal managed to sum up in few words of his own: “He was an awful man. Monster. Envious, bitchy, drunk, bitter.” 

And yet, his biographer, David Margolick, spends more than 400 pages detailing the life of Burns, a man who lived fewer than 40 years, and who, in those few years, managed to turn out only three novels—only one of which was considered meritorious in its day—all of which have faded into obscurity.

Still the set-up is dandy:

“With breathtaking speed, he went form being one of the brightest literary lights of his generation—published by a prestigious house, much sought after for blurbs and speeches, photographed by Life and Harper’s Bazaar—to embittered drunk, living in exile, his talent eroded or blocked, his work brutally ridiculed or rejected, downing cheap cognac and soda prodigiously every night at the bar of a Florentine hotel until, at the age of thirty-six, under murky circumstances in an Italian seaside town, he died. His editor at Harper and Brothers, Frank MacGregor, summed it up best. “A lot of authors don’t go anywhere, but you don’t get the extreme that he was—from the top to the very bottom.’” 

The follow through from there, however, sputters.

For instance, we get this very strange soliloquy from Mr. Margolick:

“Only years later, as I started gathering material on him, did I even learn Burns was gay, and that revelation lent new impetus and meaning to my search: the gay world, to say nothing of the gay world in the years before, during and after World War II, was a black hole for me. So what began largely as a sentimental story about my school and some ancient scandal there”—Mr. Margolick attended the private school in which Burns had once taught—and written the nasty book about—“suddenly became far more complex—and, for a straight man, unfamiliar, even treacherous.”

That rather odd word choice of “treacherous” aside, the reader here has to stop and ask himself why the author felt the need for this particular apology—and for the admission of his own sexuality.

Had his subject been revealed in some other way, had his religion or his politics or race or even his physical gender been called into question, would author Margolick had felt the need to point out that it was not a club in which he himself is a member?

Isn’t it the role of the biographer to professionally and objectively present the life story of the subject in a way that is both readable (which is to say, on some level, entertaining) and educational?

For the record, the derailment of Dreadful begins on page ten with the following apology. If not in the aforementioned subtitle, which itself places the onus of the book on John Horne Burns’ sexuality—something the author has already admitted as perhaps problematic.

From here, the author continues:

“Burns proved to be a difficult man to know, to like, to write about. Readers may have to struggle, as I have, with his prickly personality: how much it was innate, how much cultivated, how much a reaction to the predicament any gay man faced in that hostile era, how much he managed to overcome.”

As biographer Joan Schenkar proved in her work The Talented Miss Highsmith, the noted volume on the life of author Patricia Highsmith (who, for the record, could have matched Burns, word for word and drink for drink, to say nothing of the fact that she—also a gay individual living in the days of highly and plushly padded closets—left him in the dust when it came to serious cruelty, vengeance, and serious mean-mouthedness) it is very possible to write about an unsympathetic person in a most moving, even sympathetic manner. It is possible for the resulting book to be both an exquisite biography and a real page-turner.

But such is not the case with Dreadful.

The book seems 100 pages too long and—damn it—far, far too interested in Lucifer with a Book:

“Libraries are generally best known for the items they contain. But when I reached Loomis, a prep school in Windsor, Connecticut, in the fall of 1966, what soon came to intrigue me most about its library was a book that wasn’t there. Only a few weeks after I arrived, another student told me—in the hushed tones of someone disclosing an ancient but still embarrassing secret—that many years earlier a man named John Horne Burns had written a scabrous novel about Loomis called Lucifer with a Book . . .”

We go on from there. And on some more and more again as if Mr. Margolick assumes that we are all Loomis alumni and therefore share his interest in how shabbily Burns bit the hand that literally fed him.

What we readers get short shrift on in the man Burns himself. As his biographer warned us, he was a hard man to pin down.

Even in Naples during World War II, where Burns got himself stationed, where the circumstances of the conflict were said to have traumatized Burns enough to have shattered his façade and opened his heart. So much so that his resulting novel, called The Gallery, for Galleria Umberto, the place in Naples where, after the city had largely been reduced to rubble, everyone gathers, merchants, prostitutes, and American soldiers looking to do business with both.

But Mr. Margolick fails at any point to get behind Burns’ moue to the point at which we can see anything from his point of view or witness anything that may attest to an open heart. Open wallet, yes. Open pants, most certainly. But an open heart? Never.

What is of interest is exactly how his book The Gallery slipped over time from being something of a sensation in post-war publishing to being almost totally unknown today. And why the author of such a book seemed incapable of following it by writing anything at all of any sort of merit.

Perhaps it is as Gore Vidal (a frenemy of Burns’ in life, something of an apologist for him after his death) summed it up:

“Extreme circumstances made him write a book which was better than his talent, an unbearable fate for an ambitious artists who wants to go on, but cannot; all later work shadowed by the splendid accident of a moment’s genius. I suspect that once Burns realized his situation, he in fact chose not to go on, and between Italian brandy and Italian sun contrived to stop.” 

Indeed, the whole book comes briefly and joyfully alive when Vidal and Burns, contemporaries sharing both literary ambition and sexual preference, collide, with ensuing bitchfest.

(Vidal, who never disappoints, notes in his journal on the day after meeting Burns that “there was mild antagonism in the air. He is very odd, quite ugly; tall plump and fair a long broken nose, flop ears and a high forehead; he’s losing his hair—his speaking voice is pleasant,” and in giving this description paints the best portrait of the man we get in the whole of the volume.) 

What also both entertains and informs are the snippets of Burns letters, written while Burns served in uniform during World War II to a equally closeted man who had once been Burns’ prize pupil at Loomis.

Through these extracts, we learn, for instance, just why that word “dreadful” seemed both a good and clever title and a means of evading military censorship while Burns detailed his sexual encounters in Italy:

“Without a doubt the most crucial word in their private vocabulary wasn’t new at all, but simply repurposed. It was ‘dreadful’ . . . meaning ‘homosexual.’ It could have emanated from Burns’s vast storehouse of literary learning; in one poem Shelly wrote about ‘deeds too dreadful for a name’—code, some believe, for homosexuality. Most likely it was another of Burns’s playful coinages. But it wasn’t all play: along with the rest of their esoteric vocabulary, ‘dreadful’ was a word that would elude priggish but unimaginative military censors.” One cannot help but wonder if, like those military censors combing through all those letters, Mr. Margolick himself didn’t, in all his research, simply miss the meaning of Burns’ words, of his motivations, and indeed of his life.

We come away from Dreadful frankly puzzled and more than a little frazzled, with no more insight into this obscure, even invisible man than we had on first opening the book.