Some years ago, my family and I were vacationing in Gulf Shores, Alabama, a lovely beach town not many people have heard of. Gulf Shores was mostly empty, the first week of August, prime time, the devastation of Katrina still weighing heavy. The water is that of a bath, I can still taste the seafood, and the rooms were nice and cheap. One downfall: Walking from the water back to the car in mid-afternoon proved hazardous, the sand so hot, our sons, despite sandals, cried with every step. It was hot. I took to throwing towels and T-shirts down in front of them, like a knight and a puddle, picking up every few feet to extend the cotton bridge the fifty yards to the Civic.
Halfway to the parking lot, I heard the most hilariously and unintentionally ironic statement ever uttered in my earshot. A woman sitting on a beach chair in the middle of a large group of adults proclaimed this exact phrase: “I don’t know where I was, what I was doing, or who I was with, but I’ll never forget the moment I was saved.”
I started laughing, loudly and uncontrollably, causing the group to look over. I pretended to be laughing at something concerning my kids (like their tiny, burning feet …) and the woman went on. I relayed the story to Karen, already at the car, and we drove away, wondering what was so memorable about that moment if not the place, actions, or company.
Despite living in Saved City, USA—Springfield, Missouri—I’ve never had my moment of saving, not in the way this woman had. Instead, I’ve always pointed to one particular moment as my “saving,” the time I read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I was a junior in college, up in my attic bedroom, reading it for a class, and was blown away. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the grandmother, and just like that, was terrified by the Misfit, by the stark violence that ends the story, this serial killer who showed me just what short fiction could do. I liked stories before, was a writing major trying to write them, but I had never been moved before. Saved. Twenty-three years later, here I am.
Suzanne Burns’ Misfits and Other Heroes doesn’t feature the Misfit, but a whole bunch of them. Released by Dzanc Books (my first publisher) in 2009, Burns’ book features a menagerie of well drawn iconoclasts, ne’er-do-wells, and cretins, but not necessarily violent or criminal. Burns explores the everyday misfit, the people we all know, probably disregard, but fear because we know they’re out there, that at least one of the people we work with, maybe are related to, boast secrets we don’t want to unravel. Which one? We love to guess, but we never really know. One story in Burns’ book features a man with a third hand growing out of his arm (though he might not be the misfit in that story), and another a woman so obsessed with her miniature Victorian house, she drives her husband to particular brand of insanity.
Today’s story, “The Resurrection of Debbie,” features yet another kind of misfit, Dylan, who used to be named Debbie. Debbie wasn’t popular at work, didn’t look the way she wanted to look, and didn’t love the kind of man she wanted to love. On her thirtieth birthday, she declares herself a new person, emerging from her former self as Dylan Monroe, who diets, works out, and goes through a battery of plastic surgeries. Along with her appearance, Dylan discards Debbie’s old belongings, scanning e-Bay for anti-Debbie tchotchkes. She has become obsessed with shades, of lipstick, hair, and season. This is no mere makeover: Dylan has killed Debbie and has risen from her ashes.
What’s really great about all this is Dylan works the same cubicle typist’s job that Debbie worked and therefore has the same coworkers—the rebirth did not include a change of career. What this allows Burns to do is place Dylan in a room full of people who know that she’s gone through this change, but don’t take it nearly as seriously as Dylan herself. Imagine one of your coworkers going through a change on his or thirtieth birthday, maybe losing some weight, changing their hair, taking up veganism. Pretty typical. But imagine them changing their name, getting their nose redone, and talking about killing her former self as if it were an actual crime. What you’re thinking now is what Dylan’s colleagues were thinking. What a great protagonist, this Dylan.
Mostly, though, Dylan’s coworkers adjust. The story is set three years after the rebirth, and only one person—the resident sexual harasser—still calls her Debbie. She has done the impossible, changed her identity, though for what it’s worth, she’s stuck in the same cubicle, and the same pay grade, and hasn’t dated since her emergence. Debbie might be dead, but we the reader, and Dylan herself, start to wonder what good it did her, this tremendous effort to be someone else. Tiresias she’s not.
What happens in the rest of the story, I won’t reveal, but will note that any story that features a change of identity also features an identity crisis. Dylan is no exception. Because the story is told from her close third-person perspective, we only get the truth about her from her unreliable perspective. Someone as troubled as Dylan—unhappy enough to change herself so drastically—is of course unreliable, but Burns’ hero goes beyond this. Dylan/Debbie’s backstory comes out through the water-cooler whispers of her office mates, the full picture forming slowly but surely, and very satisfyingly. This story features a twist, and it’s one of the most effective twists I’ve ever come across, one to make Hitchcock, or early Night Syamalan, jealous.
Misfits and Other Heroes delivers on its promise, turning our subtle misfits into heroes, protagonists who are so detailed in their anti-heroism, in their rebellion, each cements Burns as one of the great sketch artists I’ve read.