Review by Laura Gill
Clash Books / May 2019
214 pp / Paperback $15.95
June, the narrator of Burn Fortune, has a summer job in a cornfield, which, much like the town she lives in, is full of hidden danger. Almost every location, friend, and experience holds an underlying threat to her safety. And yet, Brandi Homan’s language is understated and subtle, and her writing is spare, and so description stands in for melodrama: “reaching between the corn leaves, I pull my first tassel. It slides out with a pop, white like a green onion. I drop it to the ground, wet with dew. The little black insects that were clumped around the base of the tassel are smushed on my palm.”
The whole novel is full of moments where the writing holds back, and in doing so, reveals violence just under the surface of June’s life. Most of the actual danger is exhibited in the men she spends her time around; they are rarely safe, and at their worst, they are abusive and frightening. Her father won’t let her mother drive. While June loves her boyfriend at first, his abusive father lurks in the corner of her boyfriend’s psyche, and eventually appears when he tries to hit her. And then there is Chet, a boy who commits a terrible act against June later in the novel. She describes him sitting in a chair with a “buzzed head and stark blue eyes, an eager animal.” When a friend comes in with a VHS tape, they watch “two naked people butt fucking,” and “neither takes their eyes off the screen.” These boys are hungry, and neither they nor June know the boundaries of that hunger.
Homan’s ability to write small, clear, evocative scenes gives the book an eerie, understated tone. Like June, we never quite know when we are safe. The writing rarely indicates panic, even if June is experiencing it. In one scene, for example, she has to pee at work. She’s in the cornfield and knows she’s not supposed to urinate in the field, but she does it anyway despite being “afraid of spider mites in [her] asshole.” As she pulls up her shorts, she “hear[s] a rustle, a pounding, but when [she] stand[s], the field is empty and the tops of the rows are still.” It’s the “stillness” that haunts; it’s the calm spread above the danger that terrifies.
It’s not surprising, then, that June finds an escape, even if she finds it in an unlikely place: the school gymnasium. There, she sees movie posters featuring Jean Seberg, who grew up in her town, and June decides to learn more about her. She dives into Seberg’s films thanks to the novel’s fairy godmother, Mrs. Devereaux, the school librarian, who helps her get access to the movies and encourages her investigation. Mrs. Devereaux can’t put June into a costume and send her to find her prince at a ball, but she can give June Seberg, who ultimately presents June with a question she hadn’t considered before: “how do you start from here and end up there?”
This question resonates deeply for June, and she starts to dive deeply into Jean’s life and her roles, especially her portrayal of Joan of Arc. Mrs. Devereaux tells her she got the part by a narrow margin, and it not only made her famous, but it also brought her back to town, resplendent in a convertible. June discovers that she received four gifts on that homecoming: “1. An orchid corsage 2. A key to the city 3. A small gold-plated ear of corn and 4. A parade.” She reflects, “it’s the ear of corn that kills me, not quite gold but gold enough…it must’ve felt comforting in her hand, moist on metal. The right size for a purse…” For June, corn is spider mites, abusive men, and work. For Jean, the woman who escaped, it is gold.
What stuns June isn’t simply how the role transformed Jean’s life, but also watching Jean in the role itself. Then, her fascination turns to Joan of Arc. After a particularly abusive experience with one of the men in her orbit, she reads more and more about Joan. (It can’t be a coincidence, this alliteration of names: June/Jean/Joan.) Partly because Mrs. Devereaux is excited about her interest, and piles books in her lap, but also because of the role Joan of Arc played in a world of men. “[T]he biography says that Joan wore men’s clothes so she wouldn’t be raped. Imagine. Clothes as repellent, shield. Doors her companions can’t unlock.”
For June, just as protection is a fantasy, so is leave-taking. And yet: she does try. As June wrestles with her new reality, she finds herself escaping again. This time, she heads to a culvert. If a culvert carries a stream, then perhaps it’s a place where June can carry herself: away from the world that haunts her, away from the natural forces of mites and men that threaten her well-being. She brings photos, clips, and a camera into that space. She decorates it with the narratives she needs. And, in the end, she turns to the camera on herself, her “blood inside.” She says, “fuck this place, fuck everything…somebody needs to tell. Anybody.” She then puts her finger “on the button,” and says, “light your fire.”
In this final line, we are brought back to the beginning, the title of the book: Burn Fortune. Fortune is worth burning if what it has brought you is violence and danger. If the luck of your life has been made up of threatening people and places, then you must find a way to burn it. To set fire to the definition of the word itself: “arbitrary force of human affairs.” What makes June’s reality so dangerous is just that: arbitrary forces. These are the forces that June needs to escape, and she’ll use her story to do so.
Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. Her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart.