The Medicine Burns

by Adam Klein

Review by Chris Lott

Adam Klein shows unmistakable talent and a crisp writing style,
but there is just not enough meat to the stories to spend time reading them.
Bottom Line: If you are unfamiliar with the outpouring of contemporary fiction about
being homosexual and/or living with HIV/AIDS, then you might find this book interesting,
otherwise skip it. There is much better work out there.

Adam Klein's debut collection of short fiction is, as the cover flaps point out, is concerned with "boys and men who don't fit in, shedding new light on the outsider in our society." The first half of this assessment is right on: the stories have main characters who are gay, club-footed, infected with AIDS and ravaged by acne. Ultimately, though, the collection doesn't live up to its billing, presenting very little that is new or cutting edge (as everything from the title of the book, the name of the press and the cover graphic implies it does) and continually attempting to break ground that has been well broken over the last five years or so.

The Medicine Burns demonstrates that Adam Klein is a technically proficient writer, as most who have attended University of Iowa must be. His writing is generally crisp, direct and somewhat reminiscent of Raymond Carver in its brevity and flatness of tone. Klein's potential is amply displayed in the first story of the volume, "Clubfeet", which examines the connection between a gay son and his parents, particularly his mother who, like him, was born with a clubfoot. The strength of the story lies in Klein's wedding of the physical and mental similarities, which are many, with the few but overwhelming differences between the son and mother told in a wonderfully matter-of-fact tone of voice; the mother and son are bonded not by the physical deformity they have shared but by what she considers his mental "deformity." The story ends with the narrator who has temporarily been "good" after his parents confront him about being gay and cross-dressing, looking for something to wear to a party:

"One night there was a large drag party planned at one of the clubs and I'd decided to dress for the event. That afternoon, while my parents were at work at the store, I went through my mother's closet. I thought it would be amusing and a little perverse to go as my mother. I found what had to be one of the ugliest dresses in her wardrobe, some synthetic green and white checkered dress with gold decorative buttons up the front. I was carefully going through her drawers for underwear and stockings when I discovered a plastic bag with something inside it. I sat on the floor before her dresser and opened the bag on my lap. There, as new as the day they were delivered, were the plain, white baby shoes Mrs. Rosenbloom had brought to my bris. I felt suddenly stricken, shocked that she had kept them all these years. I put the shoes back in their bag and into the dresser, and then, sadly, I hung the dress back on the rack."

This not only gives a good indication of Klein's narrative voice, but also illustrates one of his great strengths as an author... he really knows how to close a story.

Sadly, the rest of the book does not live up to the strengths of "Clubfeet" and though there are some memorable moments and characters couched in technically decent writing, none of it sparkles. All too often Klein seems to mistake events and ideas which were probably new to him when he was young (I can only assume that much of this material-- which is sometimes notable in its feeling of authenticity-- is also at least partly autobiographical) for things which will also be new to us as readers. But the simple fact is they are not. I certainly have no problem with stories about people who are gay or suffering from AIDS, but there has been a lot of that kind of work over the last 5 years or so, and someone who is writing today really should be offering us something that is new for readers as well! Harold Brodkey and John Gilgun are just two of the authors I have read recently who write about protagonists who have aids or are gay, respectively, in ways that are fresh and engaging. The world of fiction doesn't need new stories about societal outsiders, AIDS victims or gay adolescents nearly as much as it needs good and engaging new stories about them! Unfortunately Adam Klein's unmistakable talent did not result in this kind of work in this volume.

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