Don't Think

nolead begins By Richard Burgin

Johns Hopkins University Press. 165 pp. $19.95

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Frank Wilson


nolead ends Richard Burgin's stories, as this latest collection demonstrates, really aren't like anybody else's.

Take "The House Visitor." The narrator's hobby is breaking and entering, though he thinks of it as just making an uninvited secret visit. On the visit he tells us of - it's Halloween, and the woman and her young daughter who live in the house have gone trick-or-treating - he goes into the family room.

"Sometimes," he says, "when I go into a room it's like walking into a dream where everything is alive but still, as if all the objects in it are underwater." This time, "what I really feel is that I've settled into some kind of dream world that only seems like it is underwater." Of course, for our narrator, "It's never as easy as it's supposed to be to separate dreams from the rest of your life, and I'm always suspicious of people who do."

The peculiar magic of this tale is how drawn into it one becomes, getting as nervous and fearful as the narrator himself when mother and daughter return sooner than expected and he hides in the closet in the child's bedroom, starts sneaking out, and . . .

Burgin's characters are all compulsively introspective. The title story is a monologue in which the divorced speaker tells himself over and over again what not to think of as he prepares for a visit from his son, who is brilliant but has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Of course, as the monologue makes plain, these are precisely the things he cannot stop thinking about. And then he realizes what it is he ought to be thinking about.

The protagonist in "The Chill" is suddenly possessed by a feeling of cold he had first experienced as a child. "It was as if it had been following him since his childhood and had finally tracked him down." He sees doctors about it, but "when he let each doctor touch his chill spot, or, more accurately, the chill's ostensible port of entry (since he felt the coldness internally as opposed to on the surface of his skin), they told him they couldn't detect any difference in temperature between his neck and any other part of him."

The urbane tone of the stories, and the implication that the characters are just ordinary people like the rest of us, makes many of them only more unsettling, especially when they focus on relationships. "Of Course He Wanted To Be Remembered" centers on two young women, Daneen and Margo, and their relationship with Peter, a now-deceased professor of theirs. Daneen is planning to write a biography of Peter. Margo was one of his lovers. The two have quite different views of Peter, the biographer-to-be seeming much more simpatico than the former squeeze is, and the tension between the two grows palpable. The explosion one expects never quite occurs, and later on, it is Margo, alone in her bath, who remembers something Peter said to her once that makes us realize why, even if she wasn't taken in by him, she still was taken with him.

This ambiguous gentleness informs the final two stories. "Olympia" tells of the friendship, romantic and erotic, of Marty, by his own testimony a competent but unexceptional photographer, and Olympia, a wealthy and famous Manhattan socialite. He is much younger than she and gradually they drift apart, and eventually he moves to St. Louis. Marty, in fact, "never married or had a child," and there is something strangely touching when, at the end, he says of himself and Olympia that "I marvel . . . that for awhile, at least, we managed to share an adventure that for some reason life decided we should go through together, or as together as people like us ever could be."

The last story, "The Intruder," concerns an aging art dealer, estranged from his daughter, who discovers a girl hiding in his basement. He lets her stay, gives her money to buy clothes, but then starts to worry and then grows angry when she comes home later and later.

Burgin has an uncanny knack for limning how the mind, its thoughts and memories and dreams, shapes experience and identity, and he does it in prose best described as soft-spoken lyricism. It is hardly going out on a limb to say that many of these stories will become classics and that someone someday will coin the adjective Burginesque.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. - The Epilogue. E-mail him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.