Best Laid Schemes and “Rancid Clichés״

Book Review of The Escape of Malcolm Poe” by Allison Burnett.

8babc-malcolm2bpoeMalcolm Poe is turning 50 and is unhappy, but this isn’t a recent development. He’s wanted to get away from Louise since very shortly after they met. Then she got pregnant and well, one thing led to marriage, four children, and the death of his only son along with everything else that got in the way of writing a literary masterpiece. Now that his girls are almost all out of the house, and he stopped taking his anti-depressants, he can finally plan his escape. To this, Robert Burns would have said, “The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy!”

Yes, this does sound like male menopause mixed with a mid-life crisis, but there’s far more to this book. Malcolm is a complex man, who thinks he knows just what he wants and is out to get it. The problem with Malcolm is, despite his being extremely well read and intelligent, when it comes to his life and himself, he is clueless. He’s also a bit of a hypochondriac; he hates his trust-fund wife almost as much as he hates the job her parents made him take after their shotgun wedding; his daughters hardly speak to him anymore and; the only friend he can tolerate is his dog Chuck. Despite all of Malcolm’s problems, being alive is one of the things he’s not bad at, and isn’t ready to quit. Although he’s off his meds, most times he seems almost chipper, probably because he’s chronicling the last leg of his journey to the “light at the end of the tunnel,” if you will allow the cliché.

While the journal format is hardly an innovative literary mechanic, the rare thing Mr. Burnett brings to this form is the inclusion of many random thoughts (including drunken ones) and relevant quotes. This is something that real journals usually possess but literary ones often lack, and sadly so. I say “sadly,” because it is just those casual tidbits that give true insight into a person, and bring the character writing them, fully to life. Since he’s the one writing it, he is far too involved to see either the humor in his actions or the huge mistakes he’s making (or made in the past), despite his air of self-discovery. Some of what he reveals makes him seem despicable, but at the same time, he is also irresistibly loveable, and we cannot help but ache to learn even more about him.

And learn about him we do, through these accounts of his various sober and inebriated escapades that rouse in him a reason to reflect on his past and how he got to where he is today. In this way, while the action only takes place over less than a year, the story is far more expansive, without being overly descriptive. All of this gives this novel a contemporary feel, which at the same time feels very familiar and comfortable, like a perfectly fitting pair of fashionable jeans.

One reviewer called Malcolm “haunting, elegant, and wise” but while I was in the middle of this book, I disagreed with this assessment. To me, he was more witty (even glib), crass and naïve. However, as I got further into this novel, I could see where we were both right. Of course, this multi-faceted aspect, and the changes in him as the story unfolds, is a sign of a well-developed character. Interestingly, in contrast to Burnett’s previous novels, on the surface, he certainly has more in common with Malcolm than he had with his other protagonists. Burnett is no drunken, unattractive homosexual like his B. K. Troop and he’s certainly not a 17-year-old, emotionally confused and overly hormonal girl like Katie from Undiscovered Gyrl.

However, what all three of these protagonists have in common is their combination of being intellectuals who are completely dense about themselves, and the love-hate relationship they evoke in his readers. Burnett also revisits the common theme from his other books; our potential and the paths we take that steer us either towards reaching it, or away from it. Only this time, he does it from the point of view of a 50 year old, husband and father, desperate to get back on track with his destiny.

This is usually the point in my reviews where I add the “but” disclaimer. In all honesty, the only one I have is that I couldn’t find anything that didn’t sit right with me. If pressed, I might say that the only drawback to this book is the slightly abrupt ending but even so, I’ve always preferred to have things left to my imagination than having everything tied up too neatly at the end of a novel. This can only mean that I’m giving this book a full five stars and warmly recommend it.


“The Escape of Malcolm Poe” by Allison Burnett, published by Writers Tribe Books, released on September 8, 2014 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) eBooks, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy), or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of his book for review. (This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel Blog.)

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