BURT by Howard Buten


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Remember Scott Spencer's Endless Love, that gripping first-person account of a romantic/sexual obsession that leads to the madhouse? Well, this bizarre, unconvincing little book is a sort of Endless Love for toddlers--with an eight-year-old narrator who tells his story, from a mental institution, in alternating bits of present-tense and flashback action. He is precocious Burton Rembrandt, child of nice, middle-class Jewish parents (a few references suggest a late-1950s setting), and he's been stuck in the kiddie loony bin because of something he did to his little friend Jessica: the flashbacks lead up to the Big Revelation of what that something was, while, in the present, Burt refuses to respond to treatment from an autocratic, jargon-spouting psychiatrist (a thoroughly evil type who's crudely contrasted with a nice, loose, anti-establishment therapist who's into kids' rights). But this pseudo-suspense format is a cheap contrivance--as is the way that Burt manages to include the psychiatrist's reports in his narrative--and the revelation, when it comes, is both unsurprising and unpersuasive: Burr, apparently precocious in more ways than one, wanted to comfort Jessica (whose father had died) and found himself making very grown-up, fully consummated love to her (""I'll make it so we won't be children anymore""). Even more dubious than this mix of saccharine and sex, however, is Burt's narrating voice throughout--a sometimes-amusing delivery that no child (however precocious) would assume, in which every third phrase jangles as it strains for cuteness, sentiment, and cheap laughs (about his Yiddish-speaking grandmother: ""I feet she should have subtitles""). Overall, then: too sketchy to interest as a case history, too clinical to involve as full-fledged fiction--an initially intriguing, ultimately off-putting oddity.

Pub Date: Jan. 21st, 1980
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston