Daniel Akst

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Dean James (review date 1 February 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205

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)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

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)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876

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 grandfather, he believes, "polluted the gene pool, man"). Engel gives the ever more adipose Burl the nickname "Rex" and worships him for his greasy bulk. Miraculously, Burl has discovered a place where the ordinary world's distaste for fatness is turned on its head.

But the friendship ends badly, as Engel's interest in Burl turns out to be mainly sexual. (Not the least hint of homophobia here, by the way.) Burl continues his gargantuan eating. The apotheosis of all his meals is dinner at a restaurant called The Grail. It takes eight pages to savor. Guided by his waitress, Wanda, he consumes, among other courses, scallops atop a tomato concasse with fresh basil; a whole foie gras in an Armagnac and quince sauce; Maine lobster "shelled and reassembled with beurre scented with ginger and lime"; filet of Utah beef; risotto Milanese with grated truffles; and lamb cooked in a thick crust of kosher salt, flour and thyme. We won't discuss the veggies, desserts and wines, but Akst labors hard and makes them all sound delicious.

Back in his motel called the Chrysalis, Burl continues to gobble food, growing wider and wider. Finally, he is so fat he gets stuck in the door of his room, and the fire department is summoned to cut him out. A butterfly of sorts emerges from this Chrysalis, as Burl is transported to a hospital where, as warning signs point to his imminent demise, his stomach is stapled. His days as a fatty are over—science has conquered gluttony.

There is one more, nutty utopia to come. The slimmed down Burl is taken into a feminist commune led by Janet David Witness, an obvious parody of the religious mini-movement led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet. The Witness movement is yet another cult of personality in the great American tradition. Burl, a virgin when the book opens, gets his fill of sex from his charming commune companion, Wanda, who had been his waitress at the great feast. It soon becomes evident, however, that Wanda's main interest like that of the Witness movement, is procreation. ("The alternative," Wanda explains, "is Shakerdom. People would remember us for our furniture.") Once his work as stud leads to an apparently fruitful outcome, Burl is shown the door.

His encounters with the Scylla of homosexuality and the Charybdis of radical feminism behind him, his appetite curbed by science, his very appearance altered, our hero returns to New York from his Western odyssey under the alias Abe Alter. As the book draws to a culmination, he finds courage, settles his business with the mob, discovers the genetic reason for his raging appetite, regains his identity as Burl Bennett, makes peace with his parents, and settles down to the Paradise of a normal married life.

With its delicately handled echoes of Dante, and its unblinking look at contemporary America, St. Burl's Obituary is ingenious and thought-provoking. But the book is in no way difficult reading. 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. It goes down as easily as cotton candy, one of the few foods that Burl Bennett does not down in this epic of consumption.

Phoebe-Lou Adams (review date June 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

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)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

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 fare:

He would have the fried squid in hot sauce, a Caesar salad, clams in that gray salty broth so good you used bread to sop up the liquor, and finally the veal saltimbocca, slender elegances of flesh blanched in wine and butter, draped in mozzarella and crowned with swirls of salty red and white prosciutto….

Burl's lone friendship is with a female colleague. Yet rather than move forward romantically, his relationship with Norma remains stalled at arm's length, separated by his girth. "Can't a fat man love?" he wonders, leaving her apartment sideways in order to wedge through the door.

Burl is sinking inside a sea of sauces and self-pity, and a life preserver is needed. Fate throws him one when by chance he enters a restaurant just as the killer of three diners is fleeing. The encounter triggers events that undermine the gluttonous inertia of Burl's world.

Realizing he can identify the killer, Burl worries he may be silenced in turn. Panicked, he embarks on a fugue across America, a Rabelaisian journey punctuated not by tourist sites but by roadside restaurants. At the end, he is a completely transformed person, both spiritually and physically. Rather than simply portray Burl's world realistically, Akst's stunning allegory of self-transformation goes one step further: We decipher the hidden meanings, the concealed patterns, of our own lives by watching Burl dramatically change his.

In Salt Lake City, he finds work at a Laundromat, where the slender Tongan manager adores fat men. Eluding his clutches, Burl is soon befriended by a waitress who is part of a local cult. He knows he doesn't stand a chance of winning her as long as he resembles a human balloon. So, responding to a newspaper advertisement seeking obese volunteers for an experimental weight-loss program. Burl decides it's time for a big change.

He undergoes banded gastroplasty and begins to shed pounds. Within a few months, Burl loses an average man's body weight. Yet, "even though the transformation he saw was gradual," writes Akst, a Los Angeles Times columnist, "it came upon him with the force of a death."

The void that Burl once silenced with food now needs spiritual nourishment. Ultimately, he returns home and, mistakenly thought to be dead, he reads his own obituary in the paper for which he once worked. Bearded, wearing glasses, a sliver of the man he once was, Burl turns up at his own memorial service. In a final scene, he confronts the great secret of his life—the reason why he became fat. Only then does he shed the literal and figurative weight of the past.

Pascal once wrote: "No two men differ as much as one man does from his former self." He might have added that such transformation owes less to will than it does to acceptance. That's one of the lessons of St. Burl's Obituary, the tale of a man slipping away from the fortress of his body to find freedom and love in the world beyond.

For readers, it's a journey worth taking.

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