[Matt is a professional writer and editor, former journalist, and a proud member of the Death Guild (see: Thunderdome) since 2000. We've invited him to write a series of book reviews for the Burning Blog ... this is his first installment. Please note that Matt's opinions don't necessarily reflect those of the Burning Man Organization.]
It’s not easy to write about Burning Man.
By its very nature Burning Man is difficult to describe accurately. Most news articles end up labeling the Burn as some sort of “dance party with art in the desert,” with the possible descriptive word like “rave” or “hippy” thrown in for effect. But as any Burner knows, that’s nowhere near close to what really encompasses a proper description of all that Burning Man is.
The same problem applies to fictional stories set at Burning Man… it’s all well and good to try and set a story at the Burn, but usually they come off a bit like trying to describe a dream you had the night before. No matter how you try and explain it, it won’t come across quite right. The unattainable nature of what makes Burning Man… well, Burning Man, just doesn’t live very well on the page. It’s extremely difficult to accurately get across all the little details of the dust, and the heat, and the body paint and the technobeats long into the morning and everything else that’s a large part of why Burning Man continues year to year.
It was this literary challenge that I had foremost in my mind when I read “The Man Burns Tonight,” by Donn Cortez. Touted as “A Novel of Murder, Madness… and the Burning Man Festival” it follows a Virgin Burner’s arrival at the Gate, and a subsequent murder he’s witness to. That main character, Dexter Edden, escapes the killer by rushing out onto the Playa. He soon fears he’ll be held complicit in the crime, and is therefore forced to interact with a strange cast of Burner characters around him as he tries to prove his innocence, by catching the killer of course.
Dexter Edden is almost the stereotypical newbie Burner in that he’s a nerdish programmer who doesn’t want to be there so much you can almost see the pastiness of his skin. Forced to attend by his overbearing boss who insists he needs to experience something different, Edden’s first such interaction getting spanked by Greeters in drag and running screaming back into his RV, refusing to come out again. Having decided that he’ll begrudgingly spend the rest of the week hiding in the RV with his boss, it’s only witnessing the murder that forces him out to interact with others on the Playa. Which is, of course, where the story begins.
And let me say here, that that the story starts badly. It’s almost enough to turn off any Burner that might be reading it, or lose any non-Burners that are curious about what a murder mystery at Burning Man might be like. But, despite the weak start of “The Man Burns Tonight,” it’s worth sticking with it. Of course some characters have to make some stupid decisions to be able to have the story progress… that’s almost a given in some crime novels. Why Edden doesn’t go directly to the police is thinly explained. Afterwards, Edden even regales himself for his poor decisions by admitting “murder makes you stupid.”
But what’s lacking at the start of the story, in addition to quick thinking on Edden’s part, is the author setting the scene of what it’s like at Burning Man. And sadly, that really just doesn’t happen until quite a ways into the book. And not only does Cortez not start out describing the environment of the Burn, what’s it’s like there or how it feels, but in-between chapters he’ll often put a small side story told from the perspective of a random attendee, as a means of setting the stage. It’s clear that Cortez knows he needs to describe the world of Burning Man, and he’s using these small stories as a means of doing so and even weaving them into the overall plot of the book and the hero’s quest for the killer.
But after the first chapter, where the killer has made his move and the Edden races out into the night, the first stage-setting small story is told from the perspective of “Fratboy Yahoo.” Yup. The jackass that come to the Burn and stare at breasts and get drunk and fall down. That guy. Perhaps not the best choice to bring people into a Burning Man novel.
However, as the story progresses, what become clear is the reader is really following not just Edden’s quest to find a killer and clear his name, but his exploration of the Burning Man community and culture. Because Dexter Edden is new to Burning Man, and thrown into a bizarre situation, he not only has to deal with interacting and learning about the people around him, but he also has to interact and learn about Burning Man itself to achieve his goal. It’s that slow acclimatization that the character gets that allows the reader to get a better understanding of the outrageous setting of Burning Man as well.
Thinking on this, I’m not sure Cortez could have approached things differently. I was off put by the lack of description and detail at first, but I enjoyed the way details squeaked in as the story reached its conclusion. Eventually he describes the dust, the art, the need to piss clear, the variety of real-life jobs that attendees have, and the strange way that Burners will help and interact with each other. In fact, the only thing that was missing was a better description of the oppressive heat that accompanies the Burn, which was noticeable.
As a long time Burner, I was tickled as Edden finds Center Camp, or Recycle Camp, has Jiffy Lube explained to him or the Temple of Atonement. Heck, even Larry Harvey makes his necessary appearance as a sort of zen-Yoda dude that pops up out of nowhere to give the hero his epiphany of how to catch the killer. Important story points take place when Edden and his friends climb to the top of Thunderdome, or stop at a row of porta-potties, and of course the quest for the killer comes to a head as the Man burns in the distance. It’s clear that Cortez knows the Burn and knows it well.
Despite the slow and awkward start of “The Man Burns Tonight,” by the end it’s by far one of the best descriptions of what it’s like to attend Burning Man that I’ve read. For murder mystery fans that want to get a taste of the event, or for Burners that want to relieve a bit of the moment, it’s worth picking up.