Five-time Pushcart Prize winner Richard Burgin’s latest release, Hide Island, highlights many of his numerous merits as a writer: a knack for conveying the complexity of human relationships; a depth of ideas through descriptive, yet concise, prose; and a fearless treatment of topics that are, if not taboo, generally avoided by the politically correct establishment. Many writers, even the greatest writers amongst us, tend to lose momentum over time, running out of fresh ideas or cranking out books for the sake of publication, but Hide Island provides ample evidence that, despite the publication of nearly a dozen volumes of fiction, Burgin’s work is stronger than ever and that he is not merely content to rest on his laurels. Burgin draws his latest fictional masterpiece from a seamlessly never-ending well of ideas, and his prosaic style and complex plot twists have remained consistently sharp.
In his novella, The Memory Center, Burgin further develops a concept from a story, (“Memo and Oblivion”) in his previous collection, Shadow Traffic (Johns Hopkins, 2011) as he infuses a futuristic, sci-fi world of memory-altering drugs with Kafkaesque allegory and Borgesian metaphysics. The drug, Memo, increases memory while Oblivion, aptly, wipes out memory. The novella’s protagonist, Greg Foster, is an admitted Memo addict who seeks “memory replacement” surgery with the notorious Dr. Rohr as treatment for his severe depression. While awaiting his treatment at The Memory Center, Foster develops an intriguing relationship with an Oblivion addict, Nadine, and has second thoughts about submitting to Dr. Rohr’s therapy, as unexpected events unfold in Burgin’s thrilling novella. At the beginning of the novella, Foster notices a sign on Dr. Rohr’s wall that foreshadows relevant plot twists and some of the more significant themes of this work: “If you forget everything you’re an animal, if you remember everything you’re a monster” (159).
In stories such as “The Reunion,” Burgin effectively revisits one of his greatest authorial strengths: the exploration of complex human relationships in unusual or awkward situations. When an aging man reencounters a woman who had taken advantage of him years before, he exacts revenge for her cold behavior while struggling with memories of his difficult relationship with his mother. In stories such as this, Burgin reminds us how previous relationships of all types result in our eccentricities and affect our current relationships, even if we are not always cognizant of the correlative complexity of such human interaction. Furthermore, stories such as “The Reunion” convey realistic life situations, in which courting and conversation often prove awkward and uncomfortable for many people, an issue not thoroughly addressed by many fiction writers, but a verity that Burgin perpetually demonstrates through his characters’ thoughts, actions, and interactions.
In stories such as “From the Diary of an Invalid,” Burgin shows a somewhat lighter, perhaps optimistic, side to human relationships. With experience, one often learns to accept the various assets and liabilities of relationships, especially where family is concerned. The narrator in this story struggles with the complications of aging and subsequent decline of his health, but the tradeoff is a loving, albeit unconventional, relationship with his son. The narrator’s appreciation of this father-son bond, as well as his fondness for the imaginary world they share, increases as he acknowledges that a “healthy body is the great diverter from thinking about the world” (115). “Diary of an Invalid” exposes a brighter side of Burgin’s often bleak literary world and reminds us that life experiences are often simultaneously uplifting and dark.
In all, Hide Island serves as further evidence of Burgin’s adept fictional prowess and perpetually keen treatment of the human condition. This impressive assortment of fiction, each tale as compelling and well-executed as the next, clearly demonstrates Burgin’s fictional range as well as his acute insight to human emotions and intellect. The artful compilation of stories into a unified collection, not unlike the creation of a great musical album, one that engages from cover to cover, appears to be a dying art; each individual work must leave an impression while ultimately augmenting the work as a whole. Fortunately, writers like Burgin still appreciate such complexity and craftsmanship, and every piece in Hide Island enhances the next, with the attention to quality one has come to expect from a true master of the genre, and one of a very select few writers who, over time, has managed to stay consistently true to himself while advancing the art of fiction.
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.
Joseph D. Haske is a writer, critic and scholar who teaches literature, creative writing and other courses at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. He is the author of the novel North Dixie Highway and his fiction appears in journals such as Boulevard, Fiction International, the Texas Review and Pleiades. His poetry and fiction are also featured in various anthologies as well as in French, Romanian and Canadian publications.