When bad things happen to bleak people
A Novella and Nine Stories
By Richard Burgin
Reviewed by Katie Haegele
If Richard Burgin's new book had a subtitle, it could be Storm's a-Brewin'. The atmosphere in every story in this collection - and, indeed, in every one of Burgin's stories that I've ever read - is positively leaden with dark-cloud dread.
There are plenty of self-consciously noirish literary writers out there, of course; Maggie Estep comes to mind, but her protagonists tend to be women with hearty love lives and big personalities. Burgin, by contrast, has peopled his stories with a succession of blank-seeming leading men to whom things happen. And most of the things that happen are bad.
How can we categorize the people who propel these stories? Most are loners, and lonely, but that's not unusual in contemporary fiction. Yet Burgin's voice is unique, and the unusual thing all his characters have in common is their secrets. Barry, the protagonist of "Cold Ocean" whose dear mother (his too-dear mother?) has just died, has exactly one friend, a sympathetic bookstore employee named Harvey. But early on, we learn that "he'd told Harvey quite a lot, but he also kept a lot hidden." He keeps a lot hidden from us as well, and the resulting tension gives the story its power.
The writer's most-revisited theme, in whatever warped way it plays out, is the never-ending battle of the sexes. In particular, he's interested in the dance that men and women perform upon meeting each other. Again and again, Burgin depicts the frisson of that first heady conversation, the sickly thrill of not knowing what will unfold. Most often, we see this through the eyes of the man - usually an older man who has lately noticed his powers of seduction fading - but Burgin shows us things from the feminine point of view, too. And guess what? Life looks just as bleak over there.
The important point here is it's not always clear what we're to think about the sufferings of these characters. And this pointlessness seems to be Burgin's point - the capriciousness of the universe, the emptiness his characters feel, those are the messages - but the difficulty with using art to illustrate the Void lies in keeping the work itself from becoming hollow. In that regard, some of these stories are more successful than others.
In "The Escort," a man named Kane who has been hanging around an airport to observe the human interactions there is forcibly removed by a henchman who answers to some unknown, possibly criminal, authority. Though the secret organization is the party with the power, in the end, its purpose is unimportant to the story and uninteresting to us. It's Kane who, like so many of Burgin's characters, is the unknowable figure, even though he's right at the center of the story. It's an intriguing angle to take, but as a reader, it's hard to feel or even remember much about a story filled with such a lot of nothing.
But it's interesting: All the stories are about a person who is either drifting along like a leaf on a stream, his life totally out of his own control, or just the opposite, a weird schemer with a complicated internal logic that guides his actions. In the Burgin multiverse, there is no in-between. And for my money, the schemers are the more fascinating to watch.
In "Flame," we meet a man who has recently retired from his boring office job and has all the time in the world to indulge his creepy preoccupations. He tells us that he'd come to feel like a worker-zombie and that if he had to be some kind of monster, he'd rather be a vampire, a glamorous aggressor, than an ugly, empty husk. That's an awful idea, but it's damned compelling, and I'd sooner spend time with a narrator like this than one who has been hitched to the back of his own life and is being pulled along behind it. Burgin is an absolute master of this type of story - the kind that shows us the clockwork of a madman's mind - like a present-day Robert Louis Stevenson whose monsters are mysteries even to themselves.
Plus, he can be funny. There is a gleam of horrible humor that shines through all this darkness, like a toothy flash of smile from the guy who has just stepped out from the shadows to rob you. The bitter inner monologue that narrates "The Endless Visit" shows Burgin's humor in fine form, and it's all the more powerful because it's rendered in such a convincing female voice. This story might be the triumph of the whole collection: Here, the romantic and intellectual tension is between two women, and their problems are not of the fanciful, shadowy-cabal type, but are mired in the all-too-believable despair that comes of always having to answer to one boss or another.
The moments that shine the brightest are of a spiritual exhaustion so mundane, and yet so perfectly worded, we can't help but smile.
"He was thinking, so many days nothing happens and then everything happens at once, so you're always unprepared."
Katie Haegele is author of "White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, and Finding Out What Was Missing."