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Recalled to Life
By Dan Burns
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Is there a place in modern literary fiction for the protagonist who has it all? What does "having it all" even mean? In the case of Peter O'Hara, the hero of Chicago author Dan Burns' heartfelt but uneven debut novel Recalled to Life it means a breezy life in the Chicago suburbs replete with a devoted wife, precocious child, rescue dog and comfortable house. All of this is bought and paid for by an important job in the Loop, where Peter is a junior partner in a large architecture firm, with a small but hand-picked team working under him. These features of a fine, American life are presented without irony. Peter has his youth and health. He has a full head of raven-colored hair. He has enough money to pay for his father's care in an upscale assisted living facility, then has the money to add-on to the family's house and hire full-time live-in help when his father's situation changes. In short, Peter is basically happy, and he has every reason to be.
The Chicagoland suburbs in Recalled to Life reminded me a bit of New Jersey in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter novels. And Frank Bascombe in those novels is of course a good example of another character who is basically happy. But Bascombe is happy despite having a lot less than Peter O'Hara has here, and Bascombe wears his happiness in a wary, hard-won way, as if it's a philosophy or way of life instead a mood. When Bascombe faces challenges, the reader gets the sense that there's much more at stake than simply happiness. And despite all the effort, Bascombe might not be very happy at all. Certainly Ford's narrator isn't as "admirable" as Peter O'Hara is in this novel. Not since reading Ayn Rand as a teenager have I encountered a character I was so clearly supposed to admire.
But what prevents Recalled to Life from being as evocative as The Sportswriter--other than small weaknesses in descriptive language and sentence construction that pepper the manuscript--is that there isn't enough at stake for Peter O'Hara. Sure, life throws some curveballs in the course of this book. His father Jack--afflicted with an Alzheimer's-like ilness--experiences a miraculous recovery and moves in with Peter's family. This added pressure at home causes Peter's work at the architecture firm to suffer. But the character Dan Burns has created is too happy, too confident and too well-adjusted for any of this to actually threaten the O'Hara family's well-being. It turns out that the most estimable characters aren't always the most entertaining.
Out of 10: 7