- Uneasy Turns
464 pages; Print, $14.99
Over four decades, Richard Burgin has published seventeen books, among them three novels and nine story collections. Five times he's won what's arguably the most distinguished award for the English-language short story, the Pushcart Prize—more than anyone else except Joyce Carol Oates, who also happens to have published several of Burgin's books through Ontario Press. In Poland and France readers celebrate his work. And yet, the larger American public still hasn't discovered this unique and visionary writer. That may finally change with the release of A Thousand Natural Shocks, a selection of twenty-five of the author's best stories written over nearly forty years.
No one in American letters has conjured a world quite so disturbing and yet so familiar as Richard Burgin. It's as though Edgar Allen Poe had set loose his characters in a landscape of urban basketball courts, hotel bars, and garden apartments. Some of Burgin's stories might be called new American gothic, others social science fiction, while still others could pass as naturalist. Haunting them all is a disparate cast of men and women just as likely to be drug dealers, addicts, and prostitutes as bankers, artists, and professors, but all share a dark psychological state stained by raw emotional wounds, burning resentments, weird phobias, or grim obsessions. Theirs are the sort of psychic disturbances that grow like mold in the neglected corners of contemporary society, the isolated places in plain view where so many people lead lonely and desperate lives.
No matter how hard they try, Burgin's characters almost always fail to form meaningful relationships. What turns so many of them tragic are the seemingly infinite ways they sabotage their own efforts for connection, sometimes for no better reason than that they doubt themselves. In Burgin's most chilling story, "'Do You Like This Room?'" a young woman enjoys the company of her date so well that she goes home with him, yet this troubled man cannot shake a growing suspicion that his choice of restaurant, dessert, home furnishings, etc. have secretly disappointed her. Her impotence in reassuring him intensifies his withering sense of failure, and he punishes her cruelly. This is classic Freudian castration theory, but there's nothing theoretical or didactic about Burgin's deeply felt and deftly rendered tale. (Two years ago, the author and his son Richard D. Burgin adapted this story as a short film called "All Ears," posted on YouTube.)
Difficulties in relations between men and women can be a hackneyed theme, but Burgin's approach to the topic is as far from cliché as a ransom note from a Hallmark card. In "The Spirit of New York" an advertising designer, equally intimidated by prostitutes in provocative clothing as by young executives in power suits, fashions his own scary tough-guy costume and prowls at night, jumping out from behind parked cars to scare women and then pretending these ugly encounters are accidents. For him, this is not exactly a sexual thrill: his whole body apparently expands and hardens, making him feel like God, who, he points out, governs the whole world by frightening people. Even so, he thinks his terror games connect him more intensely with his victims than sex ever could: when he sees their panicked faces, he recognizes the vulnerability and fear he knows in himself.
Rereading these stories, some after decades, I find myself admiring them more than ever. Burgin's compelling narratives simultaneously engage secondary themes in subtle but probing ways. Throughout his career, Burgin has buried small land mines within his stories that explode our assumptions of any gender binary. The most hypermasculine-presenting characters, for example the costumed advertising designer, find themselves strangely attracted to people of the same sex. Without any women on a particular street to scare, he takes pleasure in startling a young man whose hair is "long enough to be a girl's." Vexed male-female relations actually give some of Burgin's men the opportunity to share...