Any writer will tell you how hard it is to make good art, but some aspects of the craft are easier than others. Let’s say you want to tell a traditional tempted-by-old-flame story, like “Dumb Down” does. How do you convince your audience that this hot lady is worth committing infidelity over? Simple: don’t describe the wife at all! Hard to get upset over the betrayal of someone you barely know. Allison, the wife of protagonist Dave, only has an arched eyebrow as a defining character trait. “There was a time when that was all she would have to do to get me to ravish her right there…” (Burkhart, 202) muses Dave. Now Dave has his eye on Kerry Pigeon, wife (former?) of college friend Hal. In our first look at Kerry, we see her “Barefoot in worn jeans and a T-shirt, blond hair tousled… she was more woman than any of the college girls I’d been with, sensual in a way they could never be,” (Burkhart, 204). Yeah, there’s no way “eyebrow not as sexy as before” can compete with that.
Appropriately, for a story titled “Dumb Down,” that’s as smart as this tale gets. Dave, our narrator, describes two periods in his life. The first: his first affair with Kerry. The second: his experience meeting both old friend and old flame many years later. Good luck sorting out which events belong to which storyline. Burkhart talks about both narratives in past tense, so the transitions between the two blur into one prolonged whine from a man who can’t give up his “glory days” more than a decade after he started pining for them. Even looking back at “Dumb Down,” while writing this review, leaves me confused. I don’t know when Kerry and Dave went to the concert, or if Kerry appears in the present story at all. These jumps in time serve the cliffhanger sentences that occur before paragraph breaks or scene changes, sentences which are, for the record, excellent. They imply what they need to and follow the previous train of thought in a clear way. These moments helped the story flow like a smoothie. Still don’t think they warranted putting the entire story in a blender, though.
Remember that “smart choice” of limited description I praised at the beginning? That style of selective editing ended up hurting the story in the rearview. The main actions concern Dave’s lust for Kerry. Yet the whole story’s framed around Hal and Dave reconnecting. Torn between those two tales, the story underdevelopes each one. Hal’s not important to the love triangle, and our narrator’s so self-absorbed that he’d cut out his perspective on this whole mess anyways. And since Dave’s more interested in Hal joining Facebook in the present, there’s no reason to care about Kerry and Dave having brief and unfulfilling sex, because it’s clear Dave lost interest many years later. The story appears to be about the irony of only wanting what we can’t have. There’s not much in here worth wanting anyways.
Not much online information exists about Hugh Burkhart. The author blurb in this issue talks about his master degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing, and about how this is his first fiction accepted for publication. Hey, I’m about to graduate, and I make bone-headed mistakes too… ask my peer reviewers this week. The fact that “Dumb Down” is a writer’s first doesn’t excuse how sloppy it is, especially considering how smart this guy seems. Maybe, like Hal Pigeon (and like me), he has trouble expressing his esoteric thoughts. So let me be as straightforward as possible: skip this.
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