I’m not really much of a mystery reader. Unicorns? Spaceships? Talking dogs? I’m game. But whodunnits have never really appealed to me. However, when I saw Burn What Will Burn, I have to admit, the title hooked me. The short summary I read made it seem even more interesting: a poet finds a dead body and puts his own life in danger.
Set in fictional Doker, Arkansas, Burn What Will Burn is a story about what it’s like to be an outsider. Bob Reynolds is a poet with a lot of problems. First, people in his life tend to drown. Second, he has some sort of unnamed anxiety disorder. And third, he’s an outsider in a very small town. When he finds a dead body in the creek behind his Arkansas home, his life begins to unravel very quickly.
When Bob pulls the body out of the creek and calls the High Sheriff Sam Baxter, he doesn’t realize that he’s stepping into a decades old web of lust, lies, and family secrets. No one in town trusts Bob or even really wants him around. When the High Sheriff wants to blame someone for the mysterious death, who better than Bob Reynolds? He’s a poet, which is weird enough in the small town of Doker, but he’s also just plain weird. He has a crush on the local “mechanic” Tammy Fay that borders on obsession, but she only wants to use Reynolds as a pawn in this small town conspiracy.
The story hinges on Bob Reynolds trying to get out of the hole he’s found himself in while surrounded by an angry preacher, a drug dealing felon, a corrupt sheriff, a mentally challenged boy, and Tammy Fay, a woman with an agenda of her own and no interest in returning Reynolds’ affection. Many of the characters McKenzie writes about are eerily similar to people I’ve encountered. However, sometimes they seem more like a roll call for small town stereotypes.
Honestly, I didn’t enjoy this book. Bob Reynolds is the narrator, and his internal monologue gets flowery at times. I also just didn’t like him, which makes reading a whole book through his perspective a little tedious. Often, Reynolds does things for reasons that not even he seems to understand. The plot seems to be unimportant even to Reynolds, who bounces from event to event without a clear plan of action.
I couldn’t decide if I wanted Reynolds to go through a flashback or two to explain his weirdness. On one hand, it would answer a lot of questions I had about the unseemly narrator. On the other hand, I think Bob Reynolds would have lost a lot of his intrigue if we knew his whole backstory. I had trouble connecting to a narrator who spends zero time thinking about anything other than the exact present moment he’s in. But maybe that’s part of the brilliance of this character: his lack of forethought is exactly what gets him into trouble.
At only 212 pages, Burn What Will Burn is a quick read, though probably better suited to folks who like mystery stories. It’s an interesting character study of small town living, but it’s not going on my Top Ten Favorite Books list.