Johns Hopkins University Press
184 Pages; Print, $19.95
With its nine new stories, Don’t Think brings readers deep into Richard Burgin country. It’s a stark land despite familiar sites—urban playgrounds, row houses, parking lots, doorman high rises, cafes and sports bars. There the specters of time, death and meaninglessness haunt a wide cast of characters battered by the torments of memory and desire. Some 35 years ago Burgin first featured the troubled offbeat loners who live in this land beleaguered with phobias and obsessions, and suggested a salve: relationships. In recent years, however, Burgin has introduced men and women whose selfish, insincere and mistrusting tendencies sabotage relationships. With new characters drawn from the demimonde to high society and beyond, Don’t Think, Burgin’s ninth collection, expands this dark vision. Here Burgin questions the possibility of nurturing relationships and the value of philosophical meditation itself.
Many of these stories lampoon “babbling about time and death and infinity,” and not only for imposing debilitating dread and fear on people. Existential questioning becomes a tool for manipulating others, whether in the hands of a drug-dealing cult leader in “V.I.N.” (for Victims of Infinity and Nothingness, the self-pitying name of his cult), or a charismatic philosophy professor with a cult-like following in “Of Course He Wanted to Be Remembered.” Here a groupie catalogues her dead professor’s aphorisms about infinity and memory, but the story resolves on her sparring conversation with another student, one of the man’s innumerable sexual conquests. She sizes him up as a self-pitying, drug-addicted “pussy hound” who blamed his problems on his parents, though she also acknowledges how he championed her academic ambitions.
Self-absorbed yet eager to please is an apt description of many of Burgin’s characters. What’s more, childhood scars really do twist them. The likable narrator of “The House Visitor” breaks into people’s homes in search of the sense of domestic tranquility he lacked as a child. And the boy who appeased his weeping mother by giving her nickels in “The Offering” grows up to pay prostitutes for companionship. In their own humble way, Mason’s gifts to his mother share something in common with the more terrible attention his favorite prostitute used to pay her father: both grew up doubting the possibility of sincerely relating to others. When he falls in love with the prostitute, Mason’s efforts to build a lasting relationship face challenges beyond his control, as Burgin reveals in pitch-perfect dialogue:
“[…] Who says we always have to have sex every time you come over?”
He thought she’d like what he said, but again, he’d miscalculated. She turned and looked at him. Anger and something else he couldn’t quite define were flashing in her eyes.
“You trying to get out of paying me, now that we’re friends?”
“No, no, it’s not like that.”
“Damn straight, it’s not.”
“I’ll give you money every time you come here. I always have.”
“You don’t give me anything. You pay me what I earn….”
Even as some characters reconcile themselves to lives circumscribed by the limits of damaging childhoods, others struggle to overcome them. They repress bad memories, but inevitably the repressed returns. Fearing an ambush by “lurking, only temporarily hidden memories that could suddenly appear and shock you,” the protagonist of “Uncle Ray” desperately seeks a “bad-memory-proof” vacation at the lake of his “happiest summers.” There, he helplessly recalls bullies, his parents’s marital breakdown and predation by a local pedophile, a trauma he turned into a funny story long ago. Humor numbs wounds, Burgin suggests, but only by confronting an unpleasant past can a person hope to master it. “The Chill” introduces an amateur comic who suffers the chronic sensation of a draft. Somehow it’s related to childhood anxieties from the beach about how the wind lives alone in a shell separated from its family, rather like his grown-up self would do. After a bad date he escapes the...