REVIEW: Backswing by Aaron Burch
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Backswing by Aaron Burch is a provocative, melancholy, and meditative collection. The prose is riveting, the stories, strange and uncannily familiar. Many of the tales have a Biblical grandeur to them, modernized allegories exposing the solitude of the hero tossed into an urban monomyth. If the Hero’s Journey has three stages in the Departure, Initiation, and Return, Burch flips conventions in the “Church Van” where the story begins with a Return. A man literally starts eating the pieces of his old church van. As he makes a feast of the car parts, he recalls memories with his father who just passed away:
“He thought of a saying his father had. We find God in our cars, son, he’d like to say. Densmore never quite knew who his father meant by ‘we’ — everyone? just the two of them? — but he liked to think of it both ways. As a universality but also as something only the Densmore men shared… I find God every time I have to go anywhere and get in my car and leave this house, he’d say.”
The unusual feast becomes a communion, a confession, and a baptism as he reflects on all the experiences he had within the van. His epiphanies and his appetite for mechanical parts betray his yearnings for identity in relation to both his father and, on a grander scope, the universe. Later, spectators, mystified by his actions, are moved to almost religious reverence:
“We watched as the man continued to ignore us, eating the van as if no one was watching, as if there was nothing odd or special about it. And the more he didn’t say anything, the more meaning we gave it all.”
Watching him is akin to seeing a Marian apparition or a weeping statue, a supernatural act that fills the observer with a sense of the miraculous. This becomes the odd tale of a religious icon, a savior born from the gustatory morsels of engines and car seats. Burch acts as a mechanic for the broken pieces of humanity, assembling them, revving up their engines, and then driving them for the showcase. While the bigger themes permeate many of the stories, like “The Stain,” which literally keeps on growing on the window, a monolithic corruption of a viral brush, it’s the personal tales from youth that are especially poignant.
It’s Tyler’s fifteenth birthday in the story, “Unzipped,” and he, in a Kafkaesque turn of a more sartorial nature, discovers a physical zipper on his chest. The zipper becomes a manifestation of his teenage angst, all the layers he wants to simultaneously hide and reveal, to bare and shut away. While elements of the surreal often pop up in the collection, Burch’s prose grounds their plight in humanistic terms, an anchor of emotion tying them to our reality.
“With his left hand, Tyler pushes down on the skin on either side of the zipper. He can feel the warm touch of his heart beating into his fingers and holds his hand there until the warmth pulls it in a little further. Like holding it close to the fire after playing in the snow, his entire hand heats up, sending the warmth up and through his arm, into his body.”
Tyler’s innards are literally exposed and the story follows him into his first “sexual” experience which is both messy and frustrating. He wants to get closer to his classroom crush, Jessica, but is afraid of what she will think when she sees the zipper on his chest. So without much of an explanation, he leaves, and again, sustained in teenage logic, he’s more worried about what he’ll tell his best friend than what Jessica will think about his sudden egress or why the zipper is even there. The frailties of experience highlight the feeling the fact that the fear of rejection is often more of an impetus than lust, crumbling before the onus of expectation.
Train Time is a fascinating contemplation of time fueled by expectations. Even though it’s the last story in the collection, I read it first, wanting to read the stories from the end to beginning. It helped establish the thematic tracks that led me through Backswing. Told from a first-person perspective, the narrator is aboard the train “because I thought it might be fun, thought I could see some of the country and meet and talk to other travelers, try to get as much out of the travel as possible.” A young woman gets on board and their exchange is minimal. But after she leaves, he thinks about her, lingering on her memory, musing over possibilities:
“…in another version, an alternate to the alternate, we didn’t go play cards with the group of guys but instead sat together all day, spilling our lives to each other. I’d tell her my stories about fireflies and my ex-girlfriend who I’d gone to the Farmer’s Market with and who I’d always bought a single flower for…”
His alternate universe is dripping with regret as he longs for a moment of genuine communication, a bridging of gaps, a track to connect opposite coasts. The narrator’s mental journey and his reflections on temporal meanderings are the ballasts on which the story is built, as are many of the pieces in the collection.
My wife and I have been learning golf of late. It looks much easier on television than it is in real life. The backswing is hard to master, even with tons of practice. The stroke is a complex set of movements that falls apart with even the slightest misstep. In each of the stories in Backswing, Burch sucks us into a hole and fires literary condors with an elan that makes his drives almost seem easy. Experience teaches us otherwise. I suddenly feel a zipper on my chest, want to eat car parts, and wish I could get on a train to travel across America. Burch reminds us making the par pales in comparison to iterating on one’s flawed form, seeking solace in the destitute yearnings to perfect one’s stroke.
by Aaron Burch