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  • Out from the Shadows
  • Joseph D. Haske (bio)
Shadow Traffic. Richard Burgin. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 280 pages; cloth, $30.00.

Richard Burgin's fiction consistently demonstrates many admirable qualities. The most notable achievement of his work, however, is that he has largely ignored the overwhelming influence of postmodern experimentalism and contemporary fads in his fiction following his own natural progression as a narrative stylist. Essentially, Burgin has developed a distinctive brand of contemporary fiction, his stories drawing from a much broader, comprehensive literary tradition than the fiction of many of his contemporaries. With the knowledge of centuries worth of prose at his disposal, he has honed an inimitable voice as he weaves innovative, engaging narrative lines. The end result of this amalgam of tradition and originality is skillful pacing, complex tension, fertile conflict, and a seamlessly imaginative psychological treatment of character. These many strengths, coupled with his consideration of the gothic tradition, make Burgin's story collections such as Shadow Traffic so magnificently sinister.

Beyond stylistic merit, the most immediately discernible strength of Shadow Traffic is the honesty in Burgin's treatment of the human affinity toward social and psychological deviation. The unsettling fervor with which Burgin explores the darker aspect of the human psyche binds the stories in this collection, as it does in his previous collections, such as The Spirit Returns (2001), The Identity Club (2005), and The Conference on Beautiful Moments (2006). Through his stark honesty regarding these intricate human abnormalities, Burgin conveys an accurate literary depiction of character complexity. His tales enable the reader to empathize with even the most socially deviant personae, despite their seemingly unforgivable quirks and flaws. Burgin's ability to find the beautiful within the ominous is what makes him a great writer, and this flair for contextualizing aberrant behavior makes Shadow Traffic all the more intriguing.

The collection begins aptly with "Caesar," a story that builds from a scene familiar to most readers, an ostensibly banal conversation in a cab between client and driver. However, the plot builds in a different, more ingeniously treacherous direction than one might expect, as the dialogue gradually devolves from innocent chatter into all-out awkward interaction. While the narrator continually reveals more about Caesar's debauched intentions and his discomfited nature, the plot mesmerizes the reader. Burgin's characters, as they are prone to do, usher the reader into a dark, beautiful, fictitious world. With the casual interaction between Chris, the cab driver, and the title character, Caesar (or Malcolm), Burgin builds tension through what appears to be harmless "small talk" between the characters:

More laughter, definitely slightly forced this time. Then as quickly as they talked, they fell silent. It was as if there were a certain number of potential subjects they could discuss, like a little school of fireflies all lit up and waiting to be picked, but then just as quickly as they arrived their lights went out and they disappeared.

As their words dissolve along with any hope of meaningful contact, the stress between characters continues to build until later in the story, when Caesar convinces Chris to sit down for a drink. Then the conflict reaches a boiling point: Chris reveals that he has no romantic interest in Caesar, despite their shared affinity for certain classical composers or anything else they might have in common on a superficial level. Burgin is a master at the pacing and revelation of this sort of social awkwardness, consistently achieving the ideal effect. One can sense the tension when Chris ultimately rejects Caesar's sexual advances, forcing Caesar to move on to another, less-desirable conquest in Gene, an older man at the bar.

A true narrative virtuoso, Burgin never ceases to amaze with his ability to move effortlessly through different plot devices and perspectives. Although the stories in Shadow Traffic are often linked by theme and spirit, they are delivered in many unique ways, demonstrating Burgin's mastery of stylistic range. In "Mission Beach," Burgin draws in the reader with a second-person point of view, allowing the reader to essentially become the protagonist of the story:

Suddenly you remember a night when you were six...


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pp. 19-20
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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