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What I Learned From the Worst Novelist in the English Language

Robert Burrows was once the subject of a devastating book review. He was also much more than that.

Some time ago, after several years on the job market, I landed a professorship at a small university in Wisconsin, a little moon of the state system orbiting the more recognizable institution in Madison. Like any newcomer to an unfamiliar workplace, I spent those early months treading lightly through the corridors, trying to suss out the English department’s fault lines (academics are famously antagonistic) and to acquaint myself with the bureaucratic processes on campus. Mercifully, the gossip was thin, and everyone was supportive. But one thing I couldn’t help noticing was the delinquent moroseness of the other writers, many of whom had all but given up on generating new content. Possibly this was owing to the colossal heft of our workload—four classes a semester, plus the unfun spadework of committees—but something darker hovered over their resignation, a ghoul of artistic inertia that seemed less the corollary of unfavorable circumstance than the furtive stranglehold of a curse.

These suspicions were confirmed one morning after a department meeting when a colleague of mine offhandedly mentioned “the story of Robert Burrows.” He said this with a gothic theatricality, as though holding a flashlight under his chin. Clueless about Robert Burrows at the time, I pumped this colleague for details, but, with an inexplicable brusqueness, he demurred and shuffled backward out of my office, mumbling something about picking up his kids and nearly tripping over a trash can. It was as though by merely asking him to recount the lore of Robert Burrows, I was urging him to commit a crime or invoke the wrath of a ghost. 

Naturally, I googled Burrows, worried I might discover that he was a Satanist or something, a Howard Hughes-like figure who peed in empty coffee cans or tortured cats in his garage. Imagine my relief in finding that he was an emeritus professor at my university, that he and his wife Marion lived in a retirement home only a few blocks away from campus. But then I stumbled across other references, ones that seemed more in keeping with my coworker’s odd and halting reluctance. In a book called Weird Wisconsin: Your Travel Guide to Wisconsin’s Local Legends, Burrows’s name was listed under a chapter called “The Worst Novel Ever Published in the English Language.” Maddeningly, the Google Books preview would not reveal the offending passage, but soon I located a Washington Post article that explained the whole entanglement.

Here’s what happened: One morning in February 2003, Burrows, aged 79, heard the telephone ring in his home in Whitewater, Wisconsin. On the other end of the line was Gene Weingarten, a moppy-haired humor columnist for the Washington Post, calling about Burrows’s recent self-published novel, a slim political satire called The Great American Parade. Flabbergasted to hear from such a venerable paper of record, Burrows wondered at the purpose for the call, at which point Weingarten laid out his gruesome Faustian bargain: He would agree to review The Great American Parade but only on the condition that Burrows allow him to say that it was “the worst novel ever published in the English language.”

A silence came over the line. Like some sort of Beltway Mephistopheles, Weingarten reminded Burrows of the Post’s two million readers, at which point you could almost imagine Weingarten rubbing his hands together with the oily truculence of a Bond villain.

Fatefully—some might even say tragically—Burrows accepted the offer.

As you might expect, the review was a hatchet job, one that would make today’s most dexterous knife-wielders—Patricia Lockwood, say, or Andrea Long Chu—stand up for unbridled applause. Strafing his way from one literary offense to the next, Weingarten lampooned the book’s premise (“you write very badly”) and lanced the verisimilitude of several of the central characters (“[they] don’t seem to have personalities”). In a crowning moment, he unleashed a stinging verdict: “I think The Great American Parade is a wretchedly terrible product that shames the American publishing industry.” 

It bears noting that in the weeks before starting this job I’d been toiling away at my novel, generating fresh pages at a Joyce Carol Oates–like clip. The book was a send-up of our post-truth climate, replete with a computer program running for president and an evangelical Christian kid who accidentally kills his parents. Think George Saunders meets Marilynne Robinson. Think Jamie Quatro meets William Gaddis. Like many first-time novelists, I was laboring under the delusion that I had something urgent to say about America, that the voltage of my dramatization might propel the reading public into a more expansive sense of justice. If there are any sins for which we can still forgive the young, one rather hopes they include idealism and hubris.

What happened next is so banal that I almost don’t want to disclose it. I froze up. The pen stalled in my hand. Whatever spell of optimism and self-delusion is necessary for sustained artistic creation seemed to have abruptly vanished, leaving me bereft and more than a little ill-tempered. I moped on sofas at home and, at work, snapped at recalcitrant students. Pitifully, I torched whole notebooks, melodramatically sparking my Zippo and watching as entire plotlines crackled to cinder and ash. Animating these little festivals of self-sabotage was my deepening conviction that even if my book was lucky enough to garner editorial attention, upon publication it would be swiftly consigned to the literary dustbin, panned as yet another bloviation from a twentysomething writer (which probably would’ve been accurate). After all, I was now a professor at the same university—in the same department even—as someone who’d been dubbed the worst novelist in history, and the proximity of that verdict haunted me, infecting the very air of campus like the whiff of bad cologne. 

This was how I found myself biking over to the library in lavish sunshine and bloodhounding around the stacks in search of the Burrows novel. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as Weingarten had said it had been. Surely it possessed some redeeming merit.

The Great American Parade is set in the aftermath of the 2000 election, when George W. Bush claimed victory after an opera of judicial nonsense. The Great American Parade imagines that, in order to rally the country around the abolition of the estate tax, Bush secretly plans a parade for the wealthiest Americans, a garish jamboree of gold-plated luxury sedans inching down Pennsylvania Avenue and monolithic balloons of Bill Gates and George Soros floating over the capitol. Once wind of the ridiculous spectacle reaches the newspaper staff at the University of Wisconsin, a cohort of college students “embark on a crusade to reawaken America” and attempt to stage a mammoth counter-protest. Across the book’s final chapter, some Swiftian hijinks ensue, culminating in a showdown between Bush’s obscene pageantry and the tactics of the student protesters, the latter of whom ultimately win the media war by holding aloft giant balloons that say things like “BUSH = PAWN OF BIG OIL!” and “KILLING THE ESTATE TAX KILLS DEMOCRACY!” 

In the refrigerated darkness of my library carrel, I read the book in one sitting. And while Weingarten surely overstated the case in calling this the worst novel ever written, it’d be wrong to suggest that the book doesn’t give the reader much to wince and groan about—aborted plotlines, a confected love story. Because so much of the book’s argument depends on the reader understanding the intricacies of the estate tax, the characters are often pressed into delivering wonkish ad hoc lectures, which makes them sound like the test-tube babies of Thomas Frank and Slajov Zizek. “America suffers from an intense fever of greed,” one character says, 

…a characteristic of our society that become rampant during the Civil War and has flared up repeatedly since then—as evidenced by the Age of the Robber Barons and the excesses of speculation during the 1920s … But those shameful episodes of our history pale beside the excesses of today, dramatized by the recent Enron scandal which a former vice president of that infamous corporation attributed to the ‘greed that was at the heart of its corporate culture,’ a greed seen especially in the notorious limited partnerships, set up in various Caribbean islands, in which those in corporate hierarchy made such killings as $2 million in two months by two partners on an investment of $2500 and $4.5 million by another on his investment of $25,000 in the same sixty-day period.”

Apparently, when Burrows reached out to Warren Buffet for a blurb, the billionaire explained to him that he didn’t think a novel was the best vessel for his ideas. 

Elsewhere the book’s dialogue reminded me of the saccharine moralism found only in afterschool specials. For instance, when the book’s heroine witnesses the events of 9/11, she turns to her friends and says, “What an almost unbelievable tragedy! It will take great resolve to overcome this terrible blow.” 

Of course, these are forgivable blunders for a first-time novelist—and a self-published one at that. Indeed, at the distance of two decades, Weingarten’s review doesn’t just strike me as featherheaded and mean (which it is) but also smacks of coastal elitism, the same sort of flyover disdain that, even despite the 2016 election, still animates civic attitudes in this country. Plus it dismisses the humor of the book, containing as it does a wonderful burlesque of the 43rd president and an uproarious caricature of Dick Cheney. And I can think of no other satire from that era that offers a more accurate premonition of Trumpian politics. Given the 45th president’s propensity for gaudy theatrics—the Kremlin-esque jingoism of the Rose Garden press conference, the gold curtains in the Oval Office—the gilded sedans of The Great American Parade seem to anticipate the tawdry spectacles of the Trump administration. There were even whispers and murmurs, earlier in Trump’s term, that the president was planning a massive parade, one that would celebrate America’s military strength, as well as its supposed moral greatness.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to Burrows, how he might’ve endured this annihilating pejorative. Such a review would have sent me to the ledge of a tall building—or would’ve at least occasioned some pillow-muffled weeping. How had he managed to overcome that label? How did a person go on?

The Fairhaven Senior Services building is a scant half-mile from campus, and one sun-drenched afternoon two years ago, I visited Burrows in his apartment. In advance of my trip, I spoke with his wife, a razor-witted person named Marion, who explained that “Bob” was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and it was unclear whether I could interview him. 

I found Burrows in bed, his complexion sheet-white and cadaverous, a quilt pulled up to his chin. There was something regal, something monumental, in his bearing, and though I knew otherwise, I found myself thinking, “There he is. The worst novelist in the English language.” Marion had received me at the door, and while she explained that Bob wasn’t in a place to discuss the book right now, she still wanted me to meet him. I approached the bed watchfully, and when his eyes latched on mine, he sprang to his feet with a gymnastic abruptness, hastening to shake my hand. “What can I do for you today?” he said, not out of colloquial reflex, it seemed, but with a spirit of genuine service. I must have faltered, stammering something about being a fellow writer, until Marion swooped in and said, “He’s gonna chat with me about The Great American Parade. Why don’t you lie down again, hon?” Wordlessly Bob obeyed her, turning to the side and revealing his greyhound thinness, while Marion escorted me by the elbow, saying that he had good days and bad. Lately he’d taken to rereading Mark Twain, she said, one of his favorites, and though it was unclear whether he retained the content, the habit of reading remained.

We sat in a modest office lined with books, family photos, and assorted oddments, talking for a long time. It quickly became clear that while Bob’s memory had disintegrated, Marion was capable of crisp and pixelated reminiscence, recalling not just the minutiae of their European travels but the names of Bob’s old students. I couldn’t imagine the awesome loneliness of that talent, of having to serve as the custodian to a marriage that your spouse no longer remembered. 

It turned out that apart from his stint as a novelist, Bob had been heavily involved in local politics, a Robespierre of the prairie, not only serving in teacher unions but also writing op-eds for several area newspapers. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Bob had been a stalwart proponent of the antiwar movement, going so far as to defy the orders of the university administration, who wanted him (when he was serving as chair of the English Department) to fire professors who were holding teach-ins on campus. Bob refused, and as retribution, the administrators evicted him from his office. So beloved was Bob by his students, they promptly organized a rally for him, assembling by the thousands and demanding his restitution. Marion painted a scene in which throngs of students crowded on the quad lawns, wielding placards and chants, and yelling over and again, “BRING BURROWS BACK!”

Only in light of this anecdote did I recognize the submerged poignance of his novel. Because blistering attacks on the Bush administration aside, what The Great American Parade is really about is the hopefulness of a younger generation, about a small band of committed citizens taking action against an oligarchic government. Burrows’s faith in that generation seemed animated by nothing else but the memory of his students. 

It was getting late, and the office glowed nostalgically with the amber of early evening. I found myself dancing around the question of why I came, not only because of its inherent awkwardness (can you tell me about your husband’s greatest failing? here, let me turn on my tape recorder) but also because I had grown to like Bob through the spiritedness of Marion’s telling. He had become more than a grim caricature, and the fullness of that personhood had exposed to me the mercenary greed of my visit. I saw that I had come here not because I wanted to recuperate Bob’s image, but because I wanted to be assured that I wouldn’t end up like him, that I could finish my novel in full confidence that my destiny would not follow his. Nearly two decades had passed since the Weingarten business, and now here I was with my notebook and my questions, wanting to drag the corpse of that incident out in front of him.

At some point while Marion was telling me about her sons, both of whom adored their father, I asked about the Weingarten call. 

“Honestly, I don’t remember,” Marion said. “Ancient history.” 

This was the type of person who, I sensed, could rattle off state capitals while completing a crossword puzzle. There was no way she didn’t remember.

“Because if it had been me, if I had gotten a review like that,” I said. “I don’t know that I would’ve recovered.”

“I can tell you he didn’t go into a deep funk or anything,” she said. “But he was disappointed because he’d invested so much time in it. And you can’t undo something like that. But we just moved on. That’s all you can do.” 

A mangled copy of The Great American Parade was resting forlornly on the carpet, and Marion noticed me looking at it. “You know, it’s funny,” she said. “Bob starting reading it after you called. He says he doesn’t think he wrote it.” She smiled. “He looked at the cover and saw his name, and said there must have been a mistake. He thought that I wrote it.”

Her laughter was booming and sonorous, but I confess I found his amnesia strangely moving in that context. After all, he couldn’t remember that he had once been called the worst at something he so clearly and forcefully loved. But in a moment Marion showed me the narrowness of my fixation.

“It’s really awful to be robbed of your memories, Barrett. So what I do with Bob is try to talk about the places we’ve been, but I don’t know how much of it really sinks in. You know, we’ve lived such a rich life. We’ve lived a year in Australia, a year in South Korea. Bob doesn’t remember any of that. So try to keep the memories as long as you can.” 

Before I left, Marion wanted to give me something, but she needed help in fetching it. On tip-toe, I felt around the top shelf of a closet, looking for a cardboard box whose mustiness I could smell even before I saw it. Bringing it down to eye level, I saw that it was a manuscript, its lid scrawled over with livid red marker. “STATE COLLEGE, USA,” it said. “Final MS. 1973.” It was about his experiences as a professor during the antiwar protests, and Marion wanted me to have it. Since both of us worked at the same university, she wondered if I might learn from it.

A few weeks ago, I got an email saying that Bob had died from complications due to Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t until this moment that I decided to crack open the manuscript. Once again I was confronted with evidence that Bob of course wasn’t the worst novelist in the English language but, in fact, struck me at times as a keen and enviable stylist, as in this passage, early in State College, USA, when he describes a young professor and his wife taking their dog for a walk through campus (clearly stand-ins for him and Marion): 

It was a beautiful September night. The air was cool and fresh, and above the richly leafed maples and thinning elms, the sky was strewn with bright stars, across which the path of the Milky Way was visible. The lights of the large old homes on Main Street fell softly on the sidewalk, reducing the dark interstices between the widely spaced street lamps. As the Westons strolled through campus, they heard the faint rock music from the upper rooms of the dormitories and saw couples, a few neighbors, and several clusters of students. 

If all we are when we die is how we exist in other people’s memories, then it is the duty of the living to properly remember our dead, to cautiously draw the contours of their nuanced and many-edged existence. As it is, I’m left reading State College, USA, in which Burrows describes, in glistening detail, the landscape of my campus. It’s in these pages I begin to see the measure of a man who tried to do right by his students, an amateur novelist unfairly reviewed in a national newspaper, a husband whose dedication never wavered. And it’s through the book I can begin to understand the sentiment expressed by his students, some fifty years ago, when they gathered on the quad lawns to demand his restoration, yelling, with hopeful voices, “Bring Burrows Back!”