April 10, 1999

“Burning Girl” by Ben Neihart

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special To The Seattle Times

Ben Neihart’s first novel, “Hey Joe,” a racy coming-of-age story, was fresh, hip and well-received. “Burning Girl,” his follow-up, focuses on Drew Burke, a 20-year-old scholarship student who becomes involved in the secret lives of a damaged rich girl and her gay brother.

Contrary to the impression given by the cover artwork, this is a graceful novel. Neihart has a gift for conjuring the wide-eyed rush of youth and its sense of endless possibilities. “He fell into a mood of hypnotized entitlement, as if he owned this highway and the blue-black clone sedans in every lane were part of a security detail escorting him home.” Drew’s infatuation with the monied life is engaging. The characters feel alive, the dialogue rings smart and true.

However, after about a hundred pages the style and tone shift into something between a thriller and a murder mystery. This happens too far into the book – one of several structural flaws – but the more troubling problem is that Neihart is not a suspense writer. He is too taken with language and detail that do nothing to enhance the tension, and his lead character chews up too many pages wondering and analyzing and explaining. Such is not the stuff of page-turning thrillers.

Neihart seems bored with the rules and cliches of the genre, but half-heartedly employs a few anyway. I would bet he doesn’t even like thrillers.

Still, the book remains readable, even occasionally compelling, because Neihart is talented. When critics look back on his career, which could be a notable one, this novel will likely be chalked up as an intriguing stumble.


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