Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Winter 2003

Desert Burial by Brian Littlefair  


Desert Burial
Brian Littlefair
Henry Holt and Company, New York
254 pp. $25.00 Hardcover




Brian Littlefair’s debut novel Desert Burial presents us with an interesting first person protagonist. A hermit by choice and fate, Ty Campbell works as a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) hydrologist on the lip of the Sahara in a godforsaken corner of Mali no one seems to want. He has found happiness in his solitude. No—check that. Not happiness. What is the word? Oh, yes.

Escape. Or obsession. Denial. Perhaps mild delusion. Any of these would probably serve. At any rate, he is secure in his matchbox hermitage until a series of unwelcome visitors begin to disturb, invade and ultimately covet his bleak patch of nothing. Being the superintendent of the only decent well in the region, he becomes the target of young athletic Lila, a US care worker responsible for a horde of recently displaced refugees. The proximity of the new refugee camp forces Ty to make decisions between the lone life and the lives of others, but just as he softens to the refugees’ plight, he is assailed from another more insidious quarter. An agent from a mega-business concern called Timbuktu Earthwealth shows up at the camp with glad-hands and money bags, making offers neither Lila nor Ty can refuse.

Before long, a somewhat disoriented Ty finds himself released from his USAID contract and planted by covert government/corporate forces as an impartial member of an International Atomic Energy Agency panel that must decide the location and consequent corporate beneficiary of a trillion-dollar nuclear waste dumping project (Timbuktu Earthwealth being one of the potential recipients). His research on behalf of the panel sets him globe-hopping between high-level meetings in Europe, an atomic test/accident/sabotage in the Urals, a Greenpeace-style celebrity intervention on the Atlantic, and a shotgun and mortar extravaganza (complete with AIDS-ridden cannibals) in good old politically unstable Mali. Be aware: some governments have been changed to protect the innocent.

It's not as wacky as it sounds. Constantly beset by grim efficient warlords, lithe female acquaintances and the miasma of corporate hoi polloi, Ty Campbell and his story might have become caricatures in the hands of a lesser writer. Luckily, Brian Littlefair shows no signs of being such a creature.

The author, with his strong literary gifts and a cinematic talent for physical and mental detail, has pulled off one of the hardest thaumaturgic feats in contemporary fiction—a compelling first person, plot-driven-but-character-heavy political corporate thriller. Given current industry biases, Littlefair should probably be congratulated for simply getting a first person novel into the inner offices of one of the big boys (Henry Holt). He was no doubt aided in this enterprise by his years spent as a consultant swimming with foreign investment concerns, international financial institutions, and the feds—publishing sharks being but a similar species of wily lurking fish. The writer’s experience abroad seethes from the page with the kind of detail an author must master in order to pull off a work of high conspiracy. After reading Desert Burial, there is little doubt that Brian Littlefair has been down in the slime he so richly describes.

The balance between character exposition and plot-based narrative is considered and superb. In most modern fiction, the weak tool of the third person narrative voice is often unable to fully expose the inner workings of character except through action or broad (and often weak) omniscient blather. Yes, we all know that Show, don't tell is the classic academic line, but Brian Littlefair not only shows in  robust fashion, he tells with such an Occam-keen edge that layers of character peel away exposing the best one can hope for in fiction—the motive core of character.

They're pitching this as “riveting, fast paced narrative,” and since the plot is at least as well-developed as character, this is not especially surprising. However, we would like to warn potential readers that to focus too heavily on aspects of Desert Burial’s plot is to miss the balanced literary value of this work.

The only slip in Littlefair’s tightrope act comes in the first three pages, which show a substantial disconnect and dissimilarity to the rest of the novel. In these few pages, the voice rings in inconsistent dissonance with those that follow. Dealing with the brooding solitary aspect of Campbell's life, this short section contains very little of the sumptuous highly-specific detail that is a hallmark of Littlefair’s work as a whole. No doubt this was intentional—an attempt to separate the before hermit from the after—but in fact it only serves to jar the reader’s expectation in an unsatisfactory manner. Don't get the wrong impression: this section is fine character work in and of itself; it just doesn't fit with the balanced approach of the remainder.

But don't let this niggle throw you. In the main, Desert Burial is a rousing, complex read. This is Tom Clancy with an international business degree and an edge of Poe or Pynchon thrown in to raise the spice level to a dark Pondicherry complexity. Heady stuff.

Though corporate/political novels don't register on my personal Must Run Out and Buy list, Desert Burial was captivating and charmingly gritty, pulling me along with jerk and aplomb. Who knows? It may just raise the literary bar for the entire genre. I would not be surprised to see Brian Littlefair become a fixture on bestseller lists over the next five to ten years—given a tendency towards prolificacy, of course). He has all the gifts and markings of a literary/commercial star.    


– CAW –