Tony Walters: Burden

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Burden

Author: Tony Walters
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Tony Walters' flimsy first novel, Burden, wields a high-concept hook so outrageous, so perplexing, and so inexplicable that it's almost worth reading to the end just to get some answers. Walters' hero is a 21-year-old grocery-delivery boy whose name, Burden, sums up the state of his life. Burden is wracked with guilt over his involvement in the death of his cousin and "blood brother" Peedie seven years earlier. Unable to bring himself to commit suicide, he instead seduces the unhappily married women on his delivery route, in the faint hope that a belligerent husband will catch him in the act and shoot him to death. Of course, in order for his plan to work, a wife, a husband, and fate all have to acquiesce simultaneously, which is where the book runs into trouble. The women in Burden, sex-starved Southern belles who appreciate the attention—his willingness to stick around for a while, waiting to get caught, actually makes him a better lover—are not flesh-and-blood creations, but deux ex feminas, more beholden to the story's needs than their own. Weaving elegantly through past and present, and adding in a gradual unfolding of the day Peedie was killed, Walters introduces three women who tug the hero along on his journey. At 15, Burden lost his virginity to Maude, the attractive, sexually demanding, and unfailingly well-mannered wife of the town doctor, a man who doesn't have the temperament to commit a crime of passion. Burden stays with her out of obligation and habit, but he finds a better candidate for his purposes in Pru, an insatiable siren whose lumbering husband has both a history of violent behavior and a healthy suspicion of his wife's infidelities. But the return of Jo, his first and only love since youth, stirs long-dormant feelings, causing Burden to reconsider the drastic course of his life. A tonally awkward mix of comedy, suspense, and sentimental melodrama, Burden seems most comfortable when it becomes an erotic bedroom farce, and Walters' fussy, overheated prose briefly seems appropriate to the moment. But as the book progresses and the gears of the plot start to grind, the lightness and sensuality of some of the early scenes give way to more ponderous confrontations and themes. Walters chooses to withhold the "why" of Burden's peculiar death wish until well after the halfway point, waiting all-too-patiently to reveal the source of his guilt and the reasons he associates sex with death. In keeping with the rest of Burden, the answer comes as a sour disappointment.