Jun 2 2017

The Burning Ground by Adam O'Riordan

Morten Hi Jensen

web exclusive

The Burning Ground:


by Adam O'Riordan

W. W. Norton & Company

$25.95 List Price

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Who can begrudge us foreigners our attraction to Los Angeles—its sprawling circuitry of wealth and poverty, beauty and damnation, innocence and experience? With its palm-screened boulevards, model-thronged beaches, and movie-star aura, LA seems faintly make-believe, yet we know that it is also a place of real crime, cults, and carbon emissions. In The Burning Ground, Adam O’Riordan’s debut collection of stories, the city is primarily a place of loneliness, ennui, and drift. An aging British painter escapes to California following the disintegration of a love affair; a divorced father drags his teenage son on an ill-advised hunting trip; a widower in a nursing facility on the Venice boardwalk recalls the day he discovered his wife cheating on him. As the book’s epigraph, culled from an essay by Christopher Isherwood tells us, California invariably presents the visitor with a kind of Faustian bargain: “You are perfectly welcome . . . during your short visit. Everything is at your disposal. Only, I must warn you, if things go wrong, don’t blame me. I accept no responsibility. I am not part of your neurosis. Don’t cry to me for safety. There is no home here.”

Born in Manchester, Adam O’Riordan is known as one of England’s most promising young poets, winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 2011 for his first collection, In the Flesh. (A second book, A Herring Famine, was published earlier this year.) But you wouldn’t guess that from The Burning Ground, which never once reads like the work of a newcomer to fiction. Any temptation toward poeticism has been quelled. Applied to prose, O’Riordan’s noticing eye is sharply attuned to the grit and grime of Los Angeles and its inhabitants. We see the chin and mouth of a teenage boy “blistering with acne,” and the “caramels of [the] cashew-shaped teeth” of a meth addict. In “Wave-Riding Giants,” we see a disabled child whose “floppy and white” legs remind the main character of “two wilted sticks of spargel.”

The Burning Ground toys with an impressive range of voices and forms. “Magda’s a Dancer,” for instance, is a story composed entirely in unattributed dialogue, while “Rambla Pacifico,” in which the foreman of a building project enlists a tight-lipped World War II veteran in the search for his employer’s daughter, reads like a hardboiled Raymond Chandler pastiche. It’s a world where stoic men take “long pulls” from their drinks and think of the past: “Lindberg sipped the cocktail from the chilled glass where three oversize olives skewered by a plastic shard left an oily sheen on the surface. It tasted good, it tasted of those summers with Angelica before the girls were born.”

In these instances, O’Riordan relies too heavily on cinematic convention. Far better are those stories in which he brings his outsider’s perspective to bear on the gaudy otherness of the city, the sense of dislocation it can evoke. His characters (and they are all, alas, men) find a reflection of their own rootlessness and estrangement in the unreal city. The aging painter in “The Burning Ground,” who intends to stay in California for only a winter, ends up never returning to London. “Life in the impossible village,” he decides, “had proved tolerable”: “The light, the absence of clear seasons, the cloud that sat low along the coast in May and June, and occasional days of rain only endeared the city to him. Each gave his life a welcome sense of stasis.”

In the book’s finest story, “A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica,” we follow Harvey, a freelance copywriter from London, on a visit to Los Angeles to see his long-distance lover, a film financier. It is Harvey’s third trip to California in eighteen months; what began as an exciting indulgence has become an expensive habit. But it isn’t Teresa, his lover, that Harvey is addicted to; nor the fancy industry dinners and cocktail parties he is obliged to attend. No, what Harvey is addicted to, he realizes, is “the eleven-hour lacuna of the flight” from London to Los Angeles:

After the thrill of take-off came the endurance test of the hours mid-air. He would start and then abandon films, leaving their protagonists frozen on the small screen. Harvey relished this restlessness, the boredom of a quality last known in childhood. Then would come a few hours of fitful sleep. Slack-mouthed, snapping awake as his neck gave under the weight of his head.

Harvey is typical of the men we come across in The Burning Ground. He is divorced and lives alone in a small apartment. Teresa, more than five-thousand miles away, remains his only real source of human affection. Yet on a recent flight to Los Angeles he befriends a fellow passenger, Nick, who, during a passage of sudden and severe turbulence, grips Harvey’s hand: “Neither man looked at the other but it was understood by Harvey that he had been reached out to in his last moments. That humanity had prevailed and that men had faced their fate together.” Later, while staggering drunkenly through a rain shower on the Santa Monica pier, Harvey calls Nick and asks if he’d like to get together for a drink sometime. Nick, roused semiconsciously from his sleep by the call, merely hangs up the phone. Harvey remains standing on the pier—“at what seemed like the very tip of this city”—waiting for the storm to approach.

O’Riordan’s vision of Los Angeles as place where people come to simply wait out the rest of their lives is a stark contrast to everything the city, on its glittering surface, appears to promise. Most of the characters here are in transit, either physically or metaphorically, and perhaps one of the reasons O’Riordan writes so well, and so often, about air travel is because being in transit can seem representative of the full span of a human life. After the thrill of take-off comes the long endurance test of life, with its inevitable boredom and its all too certain destination. “There is no home here,” as Isherwood’s epigraph has it. Indeed, O’Riordan seems to suggest there is no home anywhere; no permanence or stability, no ground beneath our feet. Dislocation and estrangement, in this auspicious prose debut, is something like the natural condition of life, which keeps travelling onward even if we don’t.

Morten Hi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen, which will be published by Yale University Press in September.