Daniel Akst Essay - Critical Essays

Akst, Daniel

Introduction

Daniel Akst St. Burl's Obituary

Akst is an American novelist.

Akst's first novel, St. Burl's Obituary (1996), focuses on Burl Bennett, a reporter who writes obituaries for The New York Tribune. An obese man who enjoys lavish meals and takes immense pleasure in eating, Burl's life is changed when he enters a restaurant and witnesses a murderer attempting to escape a mob hit. After several threats from the Mafia, Burl flees west, where he works on an epic poem about the life and death of Mormon leader Joseph Smith. In Utah, Burl finds acceptance with Engel, a man who manages a laundromat and whose culture worships people of great weight; Burl leaves Utah, however, when he discovers Engel's interest in him is sexual. After losing a large amount of weight, Burl returns to Utah and wins the heart of a waitress, only to learn that, like Engel's, her interest in him is purely sexual. A member of a cult whose main purpose is procreation, she uses Burl to father a child and then throws him out. Burl finally returns to New York and faces the truth behind his weight problem. Akst was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for St. Burl's Obituary, which drew comparisions to Dante and The Divine Comedy. Charles Monaghan stated, "With its delicately handled echoes of Dante, and its unblinking look at contemporary America, St. Burl's Obituary is ingenious and thought provoking…. Bizarre and ambitious the plot may be, but Akst tells his tale in no-nonsense, journalistic prose that keeps the story moving at a swift clip." Most critics commented on Akst's unusual and extended descriptions of food. A Publishers Weekly reviewer asserted that "Akst handles the labyrinthian plot twists deftly, employing a style that is at once literate and funny as he explores contemporary links among food, sex, identity and death."

Criticism

Dean James (review date 1 February 1996)

SOURCE: A review of St. Burl's Obituary, in Library Journal, February 1, 1996, p. 96.

[In the following review, James asserts that "Akst offers an amusing story" in his St. Burl's Obituary.]

[In St. Burl's Obituary] Burl Bennett is an overweight obituary writer for a New York paper who stumbles into the aftermath of a mob killing in the restaurant he co-owns with an uncle. Eventually, intimidated by threats against his life, Burl leaves New York and heads out West on a bizarre odyssey. He winds up in Salt Lake City, where his weight continues to increase, until he literally gets stuck in the door of his hotel room. Burl has various adventures as his girth expands and contracts along with his economic status, and he explores every nuance of his own identity and what it means to be fat in contemporary America. The story comes full circle when Burl, having assumed someone else's identity, returns to New York, where he finally faces the issue of who he really is. Akst offers an amusing story; he writes lovingly about food, but Burl is by turns an engaging and repulsive hero. It's hard to predict what kind of audience this quirky novel will attract. Recommended for large fiction collections.

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 April 1996)

SOURCE: A review of St. Burl's Obituary, in Publishers Weekly, April 1, 1996, p. 58.

[In the following review, the critic states that "Akst handles the labyrinthian plot twists deftly, employing a style that is at once literate and funny as he explores contemporary links among food, sex, identity and death."]

Transcending both the usual boundaries of the genre and the standard flaws of first novels, Akst's comic debut [St. Burl's Obituary] begins as a thriller about a journalist who witnesses a mob killing, then slowly evolves into an exploration of identity as experienced by a delightful protagonist who will invite comparisons to John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius Reilly. Burl Bennett is the 300-pound journalistic force of nature who's been banished to the obituary desk at the New York Tribune because of his cantankerous response to being edited. En route to a typically gourmet meal, Burl stumbles into a gangland-style slaying. After a brief period of enduring mob threats—and suffering through a failed stab at romance with fellow Trib reporter Norma Ruifelen—Burl vanishes, heading west to Las Vegas and then to Utah, where he hopes to research his epic poem about the life of Mormon leader Joe Smith. Instead, he becomes the object of affection for a gay Salt Lake City laundromat owner with a fat fetish. Alarmed at his rapidly expanding girth, Burl undergoes stomach reduction surgery, then engages in a spirited affair with a female cultist. When that romance fails, he takes on a new identity and returns to New York, where he attends his own funeral and begins anew his affair with Norma, who remains unaware that her lover is, in fact, Burl. Los Angeles Times reporter Akst handles the labyrinthian plot twists deftly, employing a style that is at once literate and funny as he explores contemporary links among food, sex, identity and death. But the true star here is Burl, whose appetites, charm, intellect and Houdini-like ability to get himself in and out of tight situations will win readers' minds and hearts.

Charles Monaghan (review date 26 May 1996)

SOURCE: "The Weight of the Matter," in Washington Post Book World, May 26, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Monaghan praises Akst's St. Burl's Obituary as "ingenious and thought-provoking."]

St. Burl's Obituary starts out like a thriller. The hero, Burl Bennett, savoring his approaching meal, enters a New York Italian restaurant where he brushes by a small, intense man who looks as if "he must have just killed somebody." And indeed he has. In the dining room are three bodies, victims of a Mafia rubout. The staff is in the kitchen, cowering face down on the floor.

But despite this opening, the novel is only tangentially a thriller. Rather, it is a map of the contemporary world, a black comedy that carries Burl, fearfully fleeing the Mafia, into the belly of the American beast. A newspaperman specializing in thoughtful obituaries, Burl is also a writer who has been working on an epic poem, in Dantesque terza rima, about the killing of Mormon leader Joseph Smith in Illinois. (There are echoes throughout the novel of Dante and The Divine Comedy). Burl's descent into Hell retraces Smith's journey from Palmyra, N.Y., where Mormonism was founded, to Nauvoo, Ill. Then Burl pushes on, as the Mormons did, to Utah, the American utopia.

But neither is this picaresque journey the main business of Akst's book. At its core is Burl's personal Purgatory, a feverish wrestling match with his immense appetite, a mystery in its own right because his parents are so thin and abstemious. The novel lavishes continuous loving detail on Burl's prodigious meals at restaurants and at home. Fat drips, sugar abounds, the scale groans. Burl is the American consumer par excellence.

In Utah, Burl discovers his own utopias. The first is friendship with Engel, the son of Mormon immigrants from the island of Tonga. In Tonga, the royal family is admired for its fatness. Engel, derided by a relative as "Mr. Tongan Culture, the Franz Fanon of the islands," is deeply unhappy because he himself weighs only 150 pounds (his German...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams (review date June 1996)

SOURCE: A review of St. Burl's Obituary, in The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1996, p. 126.

[In the following review, Adams complains that Akst's St. Burl's Obituary is "ultimately disappointing."]

Mr. Akst's novel starts with a provocative problem: how does a spectacularly obese man disappear? Burleigh Bennett, an obituary writer for a New York newspaper, lumbers out for a late dinner at the restaurant he has inherited and walks into a gangland execution. Unfortunately, he gets a good face-to-face look at the hit man. It becomes advisable to vanish. His adventures on the run are grotesque, elaborately gastronomic, and ultimately disappointing—at least for the reader. After all the ingeniously contrived to-do, one expects something more than a picnic in a graveyard.

Stewart M. Lindh (review date 11 August 1996)

SOURCE: "Shedding the Weight of the Past," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 11, 1996, p. 8.

[In the following review, Lindh lauds Akst's St. Burl's Obituary as "a remarkable novel."]

In St. Burl's Obituary, Daniel Akst has crafted a remarkable novel that gives life to Cyril Connolly's adage that "imprisoned in every fat man, a thin one is wildly signaling to be let out."

The protagonist, Burl Bennett, is marooned inside a morbid obesity. A prolonged celibate, his only joy occurs with fork in hand. Burl, 35, writes obituaries for a New York newspaper, and he ascribes all sensations to taste. On the way to repast, he imagines the...

(The entire section is 614 words.)