The Glister by John Burnside – A Review

The Glister reads like a tease. It gives the impression of being about something greater, of moving past the realm of a thriller/murder mystery, hinting at possible magical realism, hinting at a larger meaning/picture for the characters, but the end just sort of, well, ended.

Set in a former industrial town with a large chemical plant decaying amongst the ruins of the populace, there is a clear connection to be drawn for what we do, or allow to be done, to the world around us and the personal and societal decay which we allow to infest us. The plant is rumored to have been home to far more than herbicides and fertilizers, perhaps producing chemicals for the military. Innertown, the town closest to the factory and populated with those who once worked there, has its fair share of people with bizarre health problems, rumored (if not legendarily) mutated creatures lurking the woods, and a general poor outlook on life that seems to say that if you’re not already dead, don’t worry, you’re well on your way there.

So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that a serial killer is quietly going through the population of teenage boys every 12-18 months, removing one from their numbers. And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the local police chief got his job largely through his oafish loyalty to the man making the most money off the miseries of Innertown.

Leonard is the stereotypical youth who breaks from the stereotype. He reads classic novels, befriends the bizarre new librarian, and is generally the Fonz of Innertown, except he’s not overly popular just well known and is what passes for respected amongst the 13-17 impoverished Scottish urbanites. He hitches up with a girl named Elspeth who is always looking for a shag, hangs out with the Moth Man, and takes care of his ill father.

Of course, none of this comes to a good end.

In its own way, it’s very much by the numbers. What you expect to happen, by and large, does. Burnside has a way with words and piling on his details that, at times, lends it a distinctly mystical feel. He does an excellent job of making an ugly place have its own versions of beauty.

The easiest thing to write about is the ending because it is so ungodly open to interpretation. From looking through reviews, I seem to be in the minority who see it bleakly and literally. I don’t find the end for the police chief to be fitting, nor is Leonard’s ending feel very uplifting or, well, fair. On the one hand, this can probably just be written off as realism. bad things occasionally happen to good people, or even often happen to good people because bad people are the ones doing it to them. But realism shouldn’t be a a collar for books to wear if realism gets in the way of a larger goal. In this instance, the final transcendence of the end just did not have any real pay off for me. It didn’t mean anything. It was just another bad thing happening to a largely alright kid (though, to be fair, the kid is not without his blemishes).

One theme throughout the novel that could be explored is this sense of manufactured beauty or, more accurately, a beauty in the imperfectly manufactured. The clearest example is, of course, the chemical plant. Throughout the novel, Leonard is constantly finding beauty within the plant and talks of running into other kids wandering around the place, seemingly in search of something lost. Then there is the “garden” the police chief keeps in memoriam or even in guilt of the first murdered boy whose body he had stumbled upon and which he had allowed to be covered up as a runaway. This beauty in the imperfectly manufactured can extended to characters in the book. The librarian is a bit of a bizarre figure, someone who has the feel of a rabid Trekker who routinely dons his Klingon ceremonial garb for conventions and someone who spends time writing lengthy critical papers for publication and to further hopes of tenure at some obscure liberal arts college. Then there is Eddie, a girl with a thought process anything but straightforward but who Leonard finds has her own streak of intelligence that is well-hidden and a beauty that is never noticed. these are all castoffs of society, things and people pushed to the edges where we don’t feel required to notice them. Burnside goes to that edge, though, and works to show how even figures with the most ragged of edges can glitter and shimmer in the light.

Perhaps this is what I wish Burnside would have spent more time and focus on. Let the murder/mystery element go and just focus on these people, these kids, and showing how they get along and find beauty in their lives and in the world around them. Whether they die horribly or not, we know life does not hold much in store for them that will be good but we can know that they are good.

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