By Richard Burgin
Texas Review Press.
215 pp $26.95
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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
Rivers Last Longer
, Richard Burgin's second novel, is a harrowing examination of a most weird
folie à deux.
One half of the deux, Barry, is among the creepiest of characters, a literary first cousin to Charles Anthony Bruno in Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train.
Barry and Elliot, both from Brookline, Mass., have been best friends since eighth grade, as they never tire of reminding each other or telling anybody else who will listen. Their backgrounds, however, are quite different. Elliot grew up "in a very big house that he used to think of as a castle with professionally successful parents . . . and a smart older sister," but Barry "was the only child of a young divorcée who lived in a little apartment in one of the few unfashionable parts of Brookline."
Barry and Elliot continue to regard each other as best friends even though they haven't spoken in years, not since an odd quarrel they had.
Barry was uncommonly fond of his mother, Roberta. As it happens, so was Elliot. And Elliot was a key witness in Roberta's palimony suit, which was decided in her favor and netted her a small fortune. Barry and Elliot both have literary ambitions, and Barry had always said that, once he could, he would start a literary magazine that he and Elliot would edit together. But when Elliot reminded Barry of this after Roberta's ship came in, Barry went ballistic.
Despite their estrangement - or perhaps because of it - Barry and Elliot have never stopped thinking and talking about each other, and lately, Elliot has been getting mysterious phone calls that he is sure are from Barry.
And so they are. It turns out things have changed a bit over the years. Elliot, who has published some stories in distinguished, small-circulation magazines, teaches English at a college in Philadelphia (as did Burgin, who now is professor of communication and English at St. Louis University). But it looks like Elliot's contract might not be extended.
Barry, on the other hand, is living comfortably in a Manhattan apartment, right above the one his mother used to occupy. Roberta has died, and her money is now Barry's. Barry wants Elliot to come to New York, live in Roberta's old apartment rent-free, and be his coeditor of that literary magazine they had dreamed of and quarreled over.
To Elliot, it all seems too good to be true, and the reader knows that it is, for the reader knows about "Gordon," Barry's alter ego, who has an apartment in Exton, and who likes to pick up women, or hire them, and . . . well, take the case of Susan L. Hunt, whom he picks up at the White Dog Cafe, and whom he likes to call Love Hunt.
On their way to Exton, she passes out, and Barry makes sure she doesn't know the exact locale of his soundproof apartment. There, they make love, and then she falls asleep. While she sleeps Barry begins to mull things over:
. . . He was feeling increasingly awake because of the skinny zombie beside him in bed. . . . He'd been wondering if she were a zombie for a while, but now that he'd had sex with her, he knew it was true. That's when he felt the emptiness inside her, that there was nothing there but her need and a bunch of tricks to make sure that need was minimally fed. . . . In fact, he was getting more and more irritated with each snore. . . . It was time to wake the little zombie actress up and at least ask her some questions, like why deceive someone by pretending you were sleeping? Did she think a man of his experience couldn't tell the difference? He heard her recurrent snore and the old Everly Brothers' song in his head, "Wake Up, Little Susie." Just before he woke her up, he sang to himself, "Wake up, Little Zombie, wake up."
The next chapter begins: " 'Hey, what are you doing?' she said."
Burgin, founder and editor of Boulevard magazine and winner of five Pushcart Prizes for his short fiction, has packed more into this novel's 215 pages than you can find in many more books twice that length. There are, for instance, the acidic takes on New York's artsy-craftsy social set. For Elliot does take Barry up on his offer, commuting from Manhattan to his teaching gig in Philly, and collaborating with him on setting up the lit mag.
Then, at one tony gathering, Elliot meets a girl named Cheri. But just as things start to click between them, Barry becomes convinced that Cheri is really the girl of his dreams. In the meantime, the aforementioned Susan L. Hunt has tracked down an apartment in Exton.
It's too bad Texas Review Press wasn't more careful with the proofing. It's annoying to see yeah repeatedly spelled yah. But this is a minor smudge in a book boasting so many blacker shades of noir.