No Fire

'Burn' fails to ignite into a compelling read.

There's probably no better summation of Eric Cuestas-Thompson's debut novel, Burn, than this: The back cover pictures all 10 characters, but only a few photographs accurately match the descriptions therein.

Rey is described with "a thick black mustache above his dark full lips." Rey's photograph is conspicuously mustache-free, not to mention that the man in the photograph is white. In Cuestas-Thompson's defense, Rey's photo does have a scar in the appropriate place.

Having the photographs is a pretty weird conceit, more often seen on novelizations of films (Now a Major Motion Picture!), and you can't help but think that this is the author's attempt at establishing a filmic rather than literary vocabulary before we even open the book. Perhaps it's his attempt to trick out what looks to be a standard erotic mystery thriller. Or maybe it's just to remind us that despite all evidence to the contrary, Barron, Fouad, Rey, Marcus, et al., differ in ways other than the ways their groins "chill" in response to danger--inside there are no fewer than six instances of groin-portent.

Burn starts off and finishes with a disaster; the rest concerns the lives of the 10 men and women involved, how their lives intertwine and "collide with devastating intensity." Most of this intertwining is either sexual or obsessive--or both.

Cuestas-Thompson is a therapist in Tucson, and it's possible that some of his characters' idiosyncrasies originated from his patients, but also that his practice accounts for Burn's staggering number of references to legal and illegal drugs. Inexplicably, Seconal--the old-school sedative from Eli Lily--is misspelled, and over-the-counter sleeping pills are described as merely diphenhydramine.

None of the above is an attempt to be snarky or mean; Cuestas-Thompson is a sharp guy, and there are small-press books with less to offer (other Hats Off Books titles include O Cat West: Encounters of the Heart, the cover of which is grimly indescribable and must be seen to be believed), but Burn is ultimately a pedestrian clunkfest that manages to be simultaneously pretentious and self-loathing.

That's admittedly not a very nice thing to say about a new local author, but Burn, on balance, isn't a very nice novel. Every male character is less a person than a fetishistic totem, subject to creepy encomiums to his "dark muscular torso" and his "pendulant testicles." Burn is pan-racial and pan-sexual, but in a way that does Barron and the gang a severe disservice--embarrassing in the way hearing someone say "but some of my best friends are gay" is embarrassing.

Perhaps Burn isn't meant to be a Tucsonan Butterfield 8, and that expecting wry social commentary about sexual mores and obsession from a "dark, compelling, erotic" novel is a little much--but is it too much to ask that a gay waiter does not "swoon," "sway" and "sashay"? Is it too much to ask that gay men not enjoy sexual assault? Yours truly, incidentally, is not a rabid Puritan who thinks sex or violence has no place in fiction. The scene in which a cop drags a parolee into the desert is--trust me--unpleasant and malicious without being redemptive.

Or you could ask if Cuestas-Thompson's co-author is Rand McNally. No geographical detail is omitted, leading to descriptions like "The blue-black Cadillac careens downward along Cuesta Street at the foot to A-Mountain, through the tiny barrio nestled around it and then right onto Congress Street, towards the clinic." This sort of scene triangulation never stops.

Other dubious additions include the composition of a parking lot (dirt) and the color of asphalt (black). These aren't isolated nit-picks but are evidence of Burn's haphazard accuracy--minor things are right; major things are wrong.

It's not fun to deliver this kind of news about a writer's debut novel--Eric Cuestas-Thompson is not untalented or dumb or self-deluded. But Burn is a truly solo effort, having no discernible quality control and containing slapdash detail; even at its best, the novel is undermined by the author's disregard or disdain for its subjects. Judge Burn by its cover.