Backswing by Aaron Burch
Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014; 206 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
Like a lot of people, I’ve long admired Aaron Burch’s work as editor of Hobart, and while he has a novella and a poetry chapbook under his belt already, the recent publication of Backswing seems to be his moment of arrival as a writer worth watching. I’m excited that the book succeeds at so much of what it does, because it’s a strong example of the kind of writing that is coming out of the best online journals today, which is almost always weirder, riskier, and frankly more interesting than a lot of what’s coming out of more traditional print journals.
Burch’s characters are often young men grappling with their loneliness. One has begun spending all his time in the garage in his car, as that’s the only place he doesn’t fight with his wife. Another is a high schooler in a new town lying to his best friend about how well it’s going while trying to learn to both skateboard and masturbate. Many of the stories revolve around the compulsive, weird ways Burch’s characters try and fill the lack they’ve got down inside of themselves: self-mutilation, burglary, ark building. He’s an engaging, creative writer who manages to be warm and even funny on the page while still making his reader uncomfortable or uneasy with his characters and the situations he puts them in.
While it would be easy to categorize Burch as a writer of slipstream or magical realism (and in truth there’s no denying the label in some of these stories), I think a better category for this book as a whole would be fiction of the unheimlich. Burch is at his best when he is exploring how easily our understanding of the world comes unraveled, as he does in “The Apartment,” the story of a man who parks in the wrong parking lot and finds himself looking for his home in the wrong building. Nothing unreal has happened here, but Burch finds the menacing, and the dreamlike, in a simple mistake and walks it all the way to its anxious extreme. “Church Van,” the story of a man who decides to take a cue from the Guinness book and, you know, eat a van, is told from both the van-eater’s point of view and the point of view of the surrounding community trying to understand his actions. What’s interesting about these stories is that they push the reader right up to the point at which making sense falls away, leaving behind the schism between perception and reality. Of course, we’ve been there all along anyway, but it’s nice to be reminded, and it’s nice to have a guide.