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What a facile, hokey shaggy dog story Louise Erdrich has churned out in her sixth work of fiction! Tales of Burning Love, despite its over-the-top title, begins promisingly -- with a revisitation of the flashback opening of Erdrich's remarkable first book, Love Medicine. Again June Kashpaw walks to her death in a freak snowstorm the day before Easter, but this time her story is recalled by hapless Jack Mauser, the man who'd married her in a bar just hours before, and who, after June's death, goes on to marry four more women. Jack's wives, their relationships with him and with each other, form the foundation on which the novel's story is built. But this is spongy ground, destabilized by Erdrich's seemingly wholesale rejection of her gifts for enduring characterizations and clarified lyricism. Instead, we're offered characters that remain flat and prose that is more so, and Erdrich's familiar wild leaps of imagination and black humor are exaggerated into hopelessly earnest, bathetic melodrama.
Another snowstorm, this one following Jack's absurdist funeral (he's assumed incinerated after his house burns down, the ashy remains of a side of beef identified as what's left of his body), traps Jack's four latest ex-wives and a mysterious stranger for an all-night storytelling and stale-candy-eating session in a stranded car. A cartoonish brawl of old rivalries among the women prompts the gimmicky tales of burning love, a rash of stories so lurid and silly that they seem to keep the characters awake out of sheer embarrassment for the author.
Everyone survives, of course, including Jack, who never was dead at all, although there are a few other successful cremations sprinkled throughout the book, as well as assorted weepy psychological epiphanies and miracles. Yet the biggest miracle is that any of these women ever fall for a character as unappealing as Jack. His airless personality is summed up beautifully by his priceless reaction to the news that two of his ex-wives have formed a couple and are jointly raising the baby son born to his fourth spouse: "So his son would grow up around a double set of gorgeous breasts -- once precious to Jack, now breasts that lived proudly, on their own terms, with other breasts." At least we can be reassured that Erdrich still offers flashes of humor -- whether she knows it or not. -- Salon