You may know Eric Burns from his television work, as an award-winning media analyst. You may know him as a noted author on topics like American journalism, the history of alcohol and tobacco, and the year 1920. You may know him as a longtime former neighbor (he now lives right over the border, in Norwalk).
Burns’ latest project is “Mid-Strut.” At 73, it’s his first novel. And the story has a back story. Eric tells “06880”:
I had written a dozen books, all non-fiction, all well-reviewed to one degree or another. But I wanted to do something different. Long ago, I had gotten the germ of an idea for a novel, my first work of fiction. But I hesitated. Could I do it? I was a historian. Could I also be a novelist?
I let some time pass to think things over. Actually, I let 50 years pass! No sense rushing into things. Then I wrote, and published, a tale set in 1965, Joe Namath’s first year as a professional quarterback.
The first appraisal of my book came from the prestigious publication Kirkus Reviews. It was a dagger to my heart, a switchblade to my ego. It was by far the worst review I had received in my 21 years of authorship.
At first I just skimmed it. But there were phrases that caught my eye.
My protagonist was a racist. No! No, he wasn’t. In fact, one of the two main plot lines of the book was Arnie “Stats” Castig’s refusal to be a bigot despite extreme provocation. It was obvious.
Arnie’s relationship with the majorette was degenerate. No! No, it wasn’t. That’s the other main plot line. “Statsy” didn’t really have a relationship with the majorette; she was simply — and complicatedly — a symbol of times gone by, when Arnie’s life was happier than it had been during the week when Mid-Strut took place. It was obvious.
But wait. There were more mistakes here, and of a different kind. The review said that Arnie is a steelworker. He isn’t; he’s a security guard. It said that he works in Arbridge, Ohio. He doesn’t; he works in my hometown of Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
How could the critic have made 3 mistakes of so basic a nature, in 2 sentences? In addition to the 2 major mistakes, and others. One paragraph, 7 errors. Not errors of judgment, errors of fact. How could that happen?
My conclusion, which took me a while to arrive at and startled me when I got there, was that the person who reviewed my book hadn’t read it! I can’t prove this of course, but how else to account for so many gaffes?
Had the reviewer dipped into the book here and there? Probably. Had he or she looked at the notes on the inside flap of the dust jacket? Probably. But actually read the book … sober? I was puzzled.
I wrote a letter to Kirkus, explaining my grievances, expecting to be ignored. But I wasn’t. Kirkus replied admirably. It was embarrassed, apologetic and sincere. The review would be promptly pulled off the website, and a new one would take its place. Kirkus could not have been more nobly responsible.
Last week, its new, and official, review of “Mid-Strut” was emailed to me. “Burns’s . . . first foray into fiction,” this new assessment read,
tells the story of a man driven mad by the changing fortunes of his Pennsylvania steel town. . . . Overall, it’s an idiosyncratic novel that follows an idiosyncratic protagonist, and Burns does not shy away from the parochial fixations of his and other characters; indeed, he leans into them. Even so, he manages to capture not only their quirkiness, but their universal humanity. Any readers who live in a place that feels overlooked—or who’ve seen the world of their youth slip away—will relate to the people who populate this tale. An absorbing novel of aging and postindustrialization.
Apparently, I am a novelist after all. At least once.
(Eric Burns will discuss “Mid-Strut” at the Saugatuck Congregational Church at 7 p.m., this Thursday, November 8.)