Book Nook: Dreadful - the Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns, by David Margolick

Jul 11, 2013

David Margolick remembers the first time that he heard the name of John Horne Burns. Margolick was attending a boarding school when he heard about a book that had been banned from this prep school. Burns had written a scathing book, a novel, that was a thinly disguised critique of that school. Margolick was intrigued.

Years later he decided that it was time to write the biography of a man who was once one of the most famous American writers of the late 1940's and who had largely been forgotten. Burns had published a first novel that was a best-seller. His second book, the one about the prep school where he once taught, ended up ruining his reputation. Burns then moved to Italy where he almost literally drank himself to death at a very young age.

In "Dreadful" Margolick shows us that Burns could be brilliant, erudite, cruel, obnoxious, yet somehow, thoroughly fascinating. Burns was gay and although he didn't try very hard to conceal his orientation he was living in a society that was not accepting of his homosexuality. Margolick, a long time contributor to the magazine Vanity Fair, has reconstructed the life and career of a man who ended up obliterating himself. It was painful to witness this writer's demise. Nevertheless, this is a story that needed to be told.