Steven Hansen reviews Burning Tulips

Burning Tulips Diane Payne. Red Hen (CDC, dist.) $15.95 (156p) ISBN 978-1-888996-89-0

The terms 'memoir' and 'novel' are not as easily blended as PB&J; nor do they make half as good a sandwich. But when it comes to literature instead of low cuisine, these two forms of creative expression are hardly mutually exclusive; making fiction out of one's own life is nothing new. There are many examples of work that blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction, memoir and novel, upright citizen and bastard child.

The only question anyone who reads such an admixture should care about is: Does the author transform the highly personal into something universal?

For the most part, Diane Payne's memoir/novel hybrid Burning Tulips does.

The books only flaw is the putrid, one-note character of the father, who not only is the Vietnam War-loving stereotype of the union thug and domestic tyrant, but just happens to sexually molest his daughters, too. There may be such monsters in real life, but, at least in this instance, it doesn't make for compelling fiction. After a few run-ins with him, you're already desensitized. It's not that the author should have included some sappy detail about his secret hobby of raising orphaned bunnies, it's just that once you get to the chapter where he's in the garage slaughtering rabbits you're already so saturated with his malice that all you can do is chuckle and say, "Ho hum."

The father, though, is really nothing but a foil for the main relationship of the book between the terminally ill mother and her bridge-over-troubled-water daughter.

When Dad touches me, I can tell that he doesn't hate me, and I don't hate him. I don't hate him until he gets out of bed and starts screaming at my mother before he goes to work, once again making me invisible, forgetting that he was happy just moments ago.

The mother and daughter cling to each other like two tourists who've been abducted by a terrorist long enough to start making excuses for him, exhibiting the classic symptom of Stockholm Syndrome. In the chapter titled "The Trash Bin", the mother admonishes her daughter to not think too harshly of a vagrant bum who copped a feel. It's as if she's indirectly apologizing to her daughter for ignoring her husband's incestuous ways.

"It won't look good to say my daughter was touched by an old man. From now on, stay away from old men. They get like that. Don't you go telling anyone what he did. " Some things need to stay in the family."

Adding to the ambiguous nature of this memoir/novel is the fact the chapters can also be looked upon as stand alone short stories, autonomous in their own right, even as they work within the larger frame of the book. In the story, "The Keyhole", the young girl spies on her post-mastectomy mother preparing to bathe.

Mom's skin is red and raw, crusted with wounds that will become thick scars. Blood drips from the stitches. She looks bruised and off balance, but not untouchable.

The daughter's impulse to mother her mother overrides her fear of being pushed away, and she opens the door and walks into the bathroom. Over the protestations of her mother, the girl picks up the soap and begins to wash her mother's back.

"You're too young to see this."

"I saw it through the keyhole, Ma. It ain't that bad."

"Are you sure?"


As the daughter hits her teen years, she becomes a self-described 'Jesus Freak' who in the story/chapter, "Tongue-Tied" tries to proselytize at a crash pad inhabited by bikers.

"You know, I was wondering if the Road Knights might like to get involved with my church. You know, start a club called Jesus' Mufflers, or something like that."

The big man spits out his beer laughing. Leaning over the kitchen table, he pounds another guy on the shoulder, the one who is waiting for him to get back to their poker game, and says, "Did you hear that? She wants us to start a motorcycle club called Jesus' Mufflers!"

Bouncing from tragedy to comedy and a little bit of in between, these stories casually intertwine to create a lushly colored, painstakingly-rendered portrait of a family, their community, and the unsettled times in which they live.