Daniel Akst Critical Essays

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."