The Burning Ground review: Los Angeles stories with poetic vision
From burnt-out businessmen to a sun-scorched surfing paradise, the city comes to life in Adam O’Riordan’s debut collection
Adam O’Riordan: The Burning Ground is an impressive range of stories, and its author’s verbal polish shines out
The Burning Ground
The personal is political in Adam O’Riordan’s debut collection, The Burning Ground. Private experiences and epiphanies happen as major world events unfold in the background. There are mentions of Walter Cronkite and the death of Michael Jackson, calls for the resignation of Slobodan Miloševic and an aeroplane crash off Galway Bay that kills 99 people.
This latter tragedy occurs in the story Rambla Pacifico as Arthur Lindstrom, the foreman of a desert building project, finds himself dragged into California’s underworld when his employer’s daughter goes missing. With a gruff war veteran, Jesus Porfirio, as his sidekick, Lindstrom goes on a hunt for the beautiful Adella that turns into a high-octane adventure across Los Angeles. Overtones of the plot of The Big Lebowski give way to a more gruesome reality as Adella’s kidnapping highlights gang warfare in the City of Light.
The west coast of the United States is the backdrop for each of the eight stories in The Burning Ground, as immigrant Brits look for refuge and down-and-out locals seek to rebuild lives. This is an impressive range of stories that run from reflective to highly dramatic, and O’Riordan’s verbal polish as a poet shines throughout.
Born in Manchester, O’Riordan studied English at Oxford and became the youngest writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust, the centre for British romanticism. His first collection of poetry, In the Flesh, won a Somerset Maugham Award in 2011.
From sun-scorched surfing paradises to grungy dive bars, from road trips to the city’s homeless community, LA is brought to life. In the evocative A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica Harvey, a London divorcé, has a long-distance dalliance with a big-shot film executive, Teresa. The relationship is serviceable, but what Harvey really enjoys is the downtime on the flights. Bonding with a stranger on a particularly turbulent passage, he has the sense “that humanity had prevailed and that men had faced their fate together”.
One of the collection’s strongest stories, The El Segundo Blue Butterfly, meshes public and private as Christopher, a journalist, looks back on his career and his first, formative interview with an enigmatic businessman. From his single mother’s efforts to help her son succeed in life to Christopher’s enduring connection to the businessman, the goodness in humanity is underlined.
There are more good intentions in Black Bear in the Snow, when Randall tries to reconnect with his teenage son, Joey, by bringing him on an ill-advised hunting trip. Sidelined by his ex-wife and her flashy lawyer husband, Randall tries to go back to nature, but his attempts do little more than show the chasm between father and son.
Another harried father is too preoccupied with his young twins to intervene when he sees a man smack a child in a service-station car park off an interstate. The twist in the tale of 98 Mercury Sable brings a much darker ending to the narrator’s humorous story of passing his driving test while under the influence.
It is one of two short and diverting pieces that make for an unusual close to the collection. The other is Magda’s a Dancer, which sees two British immigrant couples discuss their careers companionably and self-indulgently over drinks. Consisting entirely of dialogue, and devoid of speech tags, O’Riordan takes a risk by focusing on the expressive effects of what his characters say. The author and critic David Lodge has called this technique “staying on the surface”. O’Riordan uses it to allow dialogue to expose his characters without narrative interference.
In Wave-Riding Giants McCauley, a lonely widower in a housing facility, confronts a long-suppressed memory of his wife, Dolores. A backdrop of surfing culture transports the reader to mid-20th century Venice Beach, where McCauley crafts boards made of white cedar for his surfing idols. The misty memories of California dreaming with Dolores disperse as he recalls finding her in a compromising position with a famous surfer and his cousin, watching “for what might have been seconds or hours at the blurred shapes the three of them made”.
There are echoes of Ian McEwan and Graham Greene in the collection’s title story, which sees an older British artist in exile in Los Angeles after the end of an affair in London. As he settles into “life in the impossible village” the painter tries to forget Alannah and focus once more on his art, turning to the homeless population of the city for inspiration, painting, among others, an addict and “the caramels of his cashew-shaped teeth”.
It is a haunting story that pins the personal and political together under the banner of art, with O’Riordan’s masterly imagery reminding us all the while of his own skill.
The ground of the title ignites as a team of gardeners prunes the sunlit Californian landscape and sets fire to the debris: “Their nickelled brass brackets began to warp, the flames licking the ivory-black canvas of their pouch to vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white.”