Though he once was best known for a ferocious reviewing style that produced a collection entitled Hatchet Jobs, Dale Peck's literary career hasn't been confined to criticism. What Burns, his first volume of short fiction, explores some of life's darker corners in eight well-crafted tales written over the past 20 years. The stories here are sturdily constructed, suggestive of the "massive wooden joist spanning the house's central axis" in the story "Summer Beam, pt. 1."
In the opener, "Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore," five-year-old Davis insists that he wants to marry Blaine Gunderson, the teenage boy who's responsible for his afternoon care at the unlicensed day care facility run by Blaine's mother. What was "eerie about Davis," Blaine reflects, is that he "talked the way he did and still managed to pick up on what was happening in the part of the world that existed outside his weird little brain." Francis Kaplan Pelton, the ironic narrator of "Sky Writing," spends his inheritance from an ex-lover in a nonstop series of globe-spanning flights. The story recounts his interaction with an attractive young woman he identifies in the story's first sentence as his "latest victim." "Certain elements of this particular flight are a little too familiar, which means that it has already failed in its mission," he tells her, in the middle of their alcohol-drenched journey.
In each tale, there's some element that induces unease, and there's often an air of menace lurking over the characters. Peck nudges that quality of strangeness to the foreground, even though all of the stories are contemporary and feel firmly grounded in reality. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer