Texas Review Press. 2013. 248 pages.
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
“The Memory Center,” the novella and end-piece in Richard Burgin’s new collection Hide Island, opens with its main character Foster sitting in a futuristic doctor’s office where you can go to have your memory increased or decreased exponentially depending on your preferences. Foster, who will soon find himself embroiled in an elaborate conspiracy, can’t help but admire the poster that hangs in office’s waiting room: “If you forget everything you’re an animal, if you remember everything you’re a monster.” This quote could act as the theme of Burgin’s sixteenth book and eighth story collection, as many of these stories deal with characters sorting out the personal demons that have run roughshod over their lives.
The past has a way of catching up to many of the characters in Hide Island to the point that each successive story feels like a sad trip towards inevitable self-destruction. That trip is often quite literal; many of the characters travel to escape their own dilemmas, only to find them waiting there when they arrive, much like the ominous figure from the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Hitchhiker.” Burgin vividly creates various locales across America – St. Petersburg, Chicago, Las Vegas, Atlantic City – which become more menacing as a dependence on sex, drugs, and drink becomes the all-consuming outlet of the characters’ grief (the second-person narrated “A Letter in Las Vegas” has more than a few allusions to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City).
“Atlantis,” a story previously collected in the Joyce Carol Oates-edited New Jersey Noir, sets the tone of the collection well, with two New Jersey drug addicts seeking relief from the stagnant, stoned haze that’s consumed their existence in Fort Lee. Stacy and his girlfriend Rina, with their mob connections, act like extensions of Christopher and Adriana from The Sopranos. They seek relief from their impulses to get high. They uproot and head south towards Atlantic City, a place that carries dark memories for Rina, who worked there as a topless dancer. But Stacy still idolizes his time working as a mob dealer. Stacy’s last minute diversion to score some drugs to sell, returning his cycle of crime and self-abuse, turns their getaway from misery into more humiliating forms of degradation that they may not recover from. Stacy’s inability to face his own issues (he constantly minimizes his addiction by emphasizing Rina’s) shows that he doesn’t have the strength to move past his problem. The final humiliating act committed against Rina (designed to hurt both of them) shows us that failing to confront our past has an incredible, destructive capacity.
Money, as a way of buying ourselves out of misery, becomes a running action throughout the collection. Sometimes money buys sex, but often in these stories it is employed in the service of receiving attention, as in “The Reunion,” an unnerving story about a man confronting a woman who he knew years ago and whom he paid to keep him company. The stories, which are often male-focused, disturbingly show how men treat women as commodities to be bought and sold for sexual gratification. The protagonists often have too many broken parts to believe themselves worthy of human connection, and this also leads them to seek what are ultimately faulty connections.
“A Letter in Las Vegas” may be the standout of the collection, thanks to Burgin’s commitment to his character’s personal deterioration. His main character Darren, a young author who has a missed connection with a young woman on the Las Vegas Strip, immediately wallows in self-pity that leads him to an evening of crack smoking. He encounters multiple hookers and petty theft, all of which barely phase him compared to the heartache he feels for losing his chance with the young woman.
In lesser hands, these stories might suffer from navel-gazing indulgence, but Richard Burgin never endorses the actions of his characters, only giving them his sympathy. The spiral of self-destruction can be impossible to climb out of, and while Burgin’s prose offers no solutions, it absolutely offers the understanding of a writer who’s witnessed the lives of others destroyed by their pasts.
Richard Burgin is an American fiction writer, editor, composer, critic, and academic. He has published sixteen books, and from 1996 through 2012 was a professor of Communication and English at St. Louis University.
Charlie Riccardelli is currently a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas. His writing has appeared in Circa, The Copperfield Review, Wilde Magazine, Lamplighter, Essay Magazine, and Rivercraft. He primarily writes historical fiction set in and around his home state of New Jersey.