Shaggy Foreskins of The Palm Trees: A Conversation with Allison Burnett

February 4, 2013   •   By Michael Lipson

This is an excerpt from a much longer conversation. The full text can be found here.


Michael Lipson: First of all, let me say that I think these three novels are amazing. I reread them in a whoosh in preparation for our talk, and it was a delight. When Adrian in The House Beautiful finally reads his dead father’s journal, he says, “This is the book I’ll never stop reading.” That’s how I felt about this trilogy. 

Allison Burnett: Wow, that is very sweet. You’re probably the first person in the world that has ever read them back-to-back like that.

ML: So what is the literary heritage of these books? What kind of books would you say they are?

AB: I think they are the descendants of a kind of storytelling that the English Victorians knew well. So much modern fiction has long detours into what are virtually essays. Philip Roth can engage you in American Pastoral with a compelling story, but then he thinks nothing of spending 30 pages discussing the history of the tanning industry in Newark. I want what the author has to say to be embedded in story, if that makes sense.

ML: Sometimes you manage in just a single line to accomplish what we might want from an entire essay. I found myself separating your witty moments in the vein of La Rochefoucauld, from your more profound moments, which are in the vein of William Hazlitt. For example, when you talk about a silence that would make Helen Keller squirm. Or when you describe a guy with scarred eyes taking off his dark glasses and B.K. Troop says, “Seeing his scars I was flooded with compassion for anyone who had ever seen him this way.” Those are both on the La Rochefoucauld side. A line more reminiscent of Hazlitt: “More heroes had perished that day in the sands of the Middle East, and some of our own troops too.”

AB: John Gardner wrote about it really well in On Moral Fiction. He talks about these places where the novelist leaves the story and diverts into an essay. “He cites the example of Tolstoy interrupting the spellbinding story of War and Peace to pontificate on the nature of history. In abridged versions of the novel, these sections are reduced or simply removed. And for good reason.

ML: There are other less plot-oriented elements that you do include, though. I wanted to mention one particular stylistic flourish that links the books: B.K. Troop’s hilarious descriptions of wine.

AB: Oh, yes.

ML: Here are some of my favorites: “A Kenyan Chablis renowned for its slow start and marathon finish.” “[A] cup of Lacryma Christi (a cedar ladle of vinegar tannins punctuated by three hard thumps of iron).” Or a Napa Valley Cabernet described as “A spritz of diesel tour bus; whiff of retired investment banker.” You’ve taken absurd wine review descriptions to a depth that no one has ever dreamed of.

AB: I have a couple of wine lovers who every now and then send me outrageous descriptions that they think rival B.K.’s. It’s a world so absurd that it’s tough to parody. 

ML: Getting back to what you said earlier about descriptions of nature, I’ve noticed that there’s almost no landscape description in your books except as kind of social commentary. Or as what a teacher of mine used to call psychoanalogy. But I notice you do have a little subset of observations about trees. You mention “the ugliest man to breathe the exhaust of trees.” And in a photograph Adrian is looking at, “a tree laden with ice wept its burden to the ground.” But my favorite is B.K. discovering the “shaggy foreskins of the palm trees.”

AB: I like the foreskins. The second of those lines you cite is B.K. alluding imprecisely to a line in Tennyson’s “Tithonus.” (“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, / The vapours weep their burthen to the ground[.]”) And B.K. does this a lot. He is a plagiarist of the first order. He doesn’t steal only from the greats. And as for landscape descriptions, you’re absolutely right. He doesn’t describe the landscape very much because he is one of those people who notice everything about their fellow Man and almost nothing about their surroundings. 

ML: A real New Yorker.

AB: Exactly, because there are few surroundings in New York aside from walls of glass and concrete. He also rarely mentions music — just a little bit in Christopher. Because he is a word person. Music just isn’t a big part of his life.

ML: B.K. is someone with a voice — a little like Kramer in Seinfeld — that can magically incorporate anything. He can turn out to know anything and it would seem to fit.

AB: One of the great joys of writing B.K. is that he can go both very high and very low in his comedy. He has as much Sancho Panza in him as he does Don Quixote.

ML: He’s this hateful, unreliable narrator that we end up loving. And he kind of outs himself on his own callousness, which is just all of ours. In The House Beautiful, when he’s contemplating the distress of his young Asian lover Pip, whom he won’t allow to move in with him, he says, “the young man’s agony was so acute it was absolutely impossible for me to take it personally. Clearly its source predated our meeting by many years. It lay in the blasted tunnels and boiling paddies of his boyhood. Napalm turned inward, I called it, and I was the victim of its indiscriminate blowback.” Then comes the great line, with my emphasis: “Still, his agony saddened and bored me, and I longed for it to end." 

AB: B.K. is writing this book from a vantage point of many years, so he now knows that Pip is not, in fact, Vietnamese — and yet he indulges in every imaginable Vietnamese metaphor. He stays very true to his ignorance at the time. This goes on throughout all the books. He’s so unreliable, so wrong about so many things.

ML: But that brings me to a thing I really wanted to ask you about this business with Pip, and his being wrong about Pip’s ethnicity and yet laying on the clichés. Actually that happens with every category of human: every race and gender and, of course, B.K. himself. You seem to have gone out of your way to include every minority, complete with the negative stereotypes, and yet somehow to lead us beyond that.

AB: He definitely doesn’t discriminate in terms of whom he discriminates against. He’s a bigot towards everybody.

ML: It is a project of yours — because even though B.K. is a homosexual, he does go after dykes and gays, too.

AB: And he has no idea why the lesbians don’t like him. He says that dykes are monogamous unto death — like tapeworms and geese. And yet he has no concept of how offensive this is. I don’t know if it was a project of mine exactly, but I just decided that no one would be safe, that he wouldn’t hold back on anyone. And yet, he’s so kind to most people once he knows them even a little bit. 

ML: In a sense it seems like you’re constantly rewriting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Its narrator looks out at a horrific world, pitilessly described, but the one point of possible faith or promise is, “Ah, love, let us be true to one another.” And that loyalty and kindness seems like that’s the thing that is finally held out in the books as an ideal. B.K. has that loyalty and kindness toward everyone in the end, and that’s why we end up loving B.K. no matter how hateful he is.

AB: Interesting that you would mention it, only because that was like, you know, the first poem I ever fell in love with. It emphasizes the power of human connection in spite of everything. So even B.K., at the end of all the madness, makes a simple bond with someone his own age, and it actually gives him some hope. 

ML: Thinking of B.K., though, I found myself writing down Henry James’s injunction to his nephew. At the end of James’s life he was asked to summarize his wisdom and he famously said, “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” And as I was writing that down, I was writing B.K., B.K., B.K. And I thought, “Wait, there are three B.K. novels, is this Allison’s code or something?” 

AB: God, I wish it were. I would be so impressed with myself.

ML: Be kind and B.K.! And kindness is really our local godhead, when there’s no external god anymore: the human kindness or the making of this intentional family. It’s what Goethe called “elective affinities” — the chosen relationships that come to be more important than the genetic ones.

AB: One of the fans of the book out here, who had his book club read the book — he’s a gay man in his 50s — said to me that, “It’s just so rare to ever read a book that includes a gay hero who’s elderly.” And that’s even in the book, when this vicious kid on a train says to him that nobody wants to read a book about an old fag, not even fags want to read a book about an old fag. So it’s ironic that these books really do not deal with homosexuality very often.

ML: They deal with it just by having B.K. as the protagonist.

AB: Right. They focus more on the lives of people around B.K., and even when they focus on his life, it’s not the homosexuality specifically. But there is a stigma attached to any book with a gay main character. I don’t think Confederacy of Dunces would be an international bestseller if Ignatius Reilly were gay. It’s a stigma the books will have to live with. 

ML: But you’re doing something to change the stigma by giving us a main character who is gay and complex: loveable, despicable, admirable, and hilarious.

AB: None of it was thought out. I just loved his voice, and I had to keep writing him. And you know I would probably write another one except that very few people really care. You know what I mean? It isn’t like there’s a groundswell for another B.K. Troop novel. The number of people who have read the three of them is so miniscule.

ML: Really? I think it should be translated into every language and everyone should read them.

AB: Well I’m going to leave that up to you. You can be my publicist.