The Burn Palace, by Stephen Dobyns, begins with the haunting image of a hospital bassinet containing a red and yellow snake where once an infant boy rested. From there, the omniscient narrator takes us on a journey above the town of Brewster, RI. As we are shown various locations around town, the reader hears briefly about the inhabitants and their current life situations.
This first chapter is a perfect metaphor for the structure of the entire novel. What Dobyns gives the reader is a collection of miniature vignettes about a multitude of characters before he proceeds to weave the whole group together into a complex mystery about small-town corruption, crime and mysticism.
Much like a grandmother’s quilt, each individual section of this novel can be looked at for the details and patterns that emerge within it, but not until you see the completed whole does the true power of the piece become apparent.
The action of the novel takes place over about seven days around Halloween. This timing only adds to the sense that something supernatural may be the cause of the strange incidents around Brewster. Topics for discussion among the townsfolk range from Wiccans and Satanists to shape-shifters and human sacrifices. Even the wild coyotes are acting atypically during these strange days.
The tapestry of characters that Dobyns creates is vast, but a few do rise to the surface, if not as main characters, at least as prominent focal points. First there is Woody Potter, a detective in the town’s police force. As lead investigator working on the child abduction case, he gets to interact with the vast majority of other characters. So much of what the reader gleans about these people is skewed through Woody’s perspective. Second, there is Hercel McGarty, the child who owns the pet snake that was found in the baby’s crib. Hercel loves his family, but has real problems with his stepfather Carl, who may just be on the brink of insanity. Hercel’s friendship with another local boy may lead to the revelation of a secret that Hercel has been hiding from everyone. And lastly, there is Bernice Wilcox. a nurse at the hospital, whose compassion makes her easily a favorite character.
Stephen Dobyns has always used his novels to explore modern cultural attitudes and concerns and The Burn Palace is no exception. Built seamlessly into this mystery story is some serious scrutiny of such social institutions as hospitals, police stations, crematoriums and newspapers. The surface plot functions well without analyzing these items, but if readers go just a little deeper, they will be rewarded with some fascinating insights into these establishments.
Dobyns’ writing often reaches the heights of poetry, where each word is a conscious choice and reveals deeper meanings beyond the specific sentence. Readers can savor these phrases as they allow the ambiance of the piece to wash over them. Even seemingly innocuous items such as the spelling words that the town’s children are studying can be analyzed for their purpose in the overall story.
At whichever level you choose to read The Burn Palace, the experience will be rewarded ten-fold with memories that will last a lifetime.