The Spirit Returns
Johns Hopkins University Press, $13.95 (paper)
"I'm looking into the future, and it's looking pretty self-destructive." So we're told by Gary Townsend, a thirty-seven-year-old university professor in Richard Burgin's "The Most Honest Person," whose distrust of women leads him to abuse one of his young students. Perhaps there's no better summation of the worldview entertained by Burgin's characters in The Spirit Returns—everyday individuals caught between the realities of their sputtering, unsatisfying lives, and the visions of perfection with which they constantly torture themselves.
In contemporary fiction, the plight of the unfulfilled, dysfunctional outsider coping with personal and familial tumult is, of course, nothing unusual; witness recent contributions by Mary Caponegro and Mary Robison to the genre. But the diverse cast of Burgin's eleven new short stories attains a rare level of plausibility. His characters are creations devoid of gimmicky quirks, written as if the author nurtured them instead of manufacturing them on irony's assembly line. Animated by Burgin's quick and economical prose, framed by his voyeuristic sensibility, these are recognizable and familiar people: suburban next-door neighbors whose difficulties are played out in front of open curtains, whose rumbling arguments are audible through apartment walls, whose actions promote suspicious whispers and scrutinizing stares.
These are, however, multifaceted characters; we are never moved to side against them. They confront the demons that plague their lives—betrayal, suspicion, guilt and loss, hope and fading aspirations—not only with Gary's mordant jadedness, but with plainspoken sincerity. "I couldn't love people because I had to scare people, but I really couldn't scare people either," admits one character. Throughout, Burgin's characters are animated by the real desire to connect: "As long as we landed together it wouldn't be a bad way to fall," says another. Burgin so accurately zeroes in on human foibles—infidelity's tempting call, the building paranoia when one suspects a significant other is lying, the onset of rage toward the beloved—that turning the page is like peeking around a corner, wondering what kind of sad truth awaits.
More specifically, Burgin shows an uncanny ability to navigate the peak-and-valley landscapes of the modern relationship. Lovers, spouses, prostitutes, johns, and strangers collide in The Spirit Returns, each collision startling the reader with dead-on observations and an unexpected feeling of kinship with Burgin's outcasts (a similar ensemble appears in his previous collection, Fear of Blue Skies). "There are as many people in the world as blades of grass but it's only the few blades you can pick and rub against your face that you feel" (from "Miles") addresses the randomness and wonder of these individuals' encounters in straightforward, yet incisive, terms; "Each feeling was a television channel of its own, playing the same show over and over again, though at any moment a new channel could be pressed and he'd have no choice but to surrender to it" (from "Carbo's") captures the powerlessness experienced by many of these characters with a no-frills analogy.
Burgin uses this forthright style to his advantage; for example, the swift language and cadence in "Hotel" propels a haunting scene where its transient protagonist is slapped awake by a nightmare in which he remembers, "I had been happy once":
I woke up perspiring again and realized something clearly. What I recalled was that I was the author of those awful words on the wall of my last hotel. I don't know who I wrote it to. I wrote it to myself, among others, I suppose. I wrote it to the life I was living, but beyond that I couldn't really say. I felt myself shiver and held onto myself in the dark as if I were a mere chip of wood or paper caught in a riptide.
The title story itself provides another example of Burgin's meticulous crafting of characters that are alternately repulsive and appealing. The author feels only sympathy for Eugene, an advertising executive whose fetish is to dress in drag and hide behind dumpsters in order to jump out and scare passersby on the dark streets of the Upper West Side.
Dressed in my leather jacket, black pants, and wig, or in the summer in my black tee shirt that said "Spirit of New York" in blood-red letters…I sometimes felt myself grow as much as eight inches or gain twenty or more pounds of muscle just while looking at my victims.
Burgin peoples his landscape with "little guys" similar to Eugene—anonymous individuals desperate to become meaningful, recognizable, literally and figuratively larger-than-life. They're marginalized and mundane, operating on society's periphery, just out of view from those more savory or relevant, realizing themselves in sad and pathetic scenes. In "Vivian and Sid in Maui," a middle-aged man tries to win the love of his life, but scuttles his chances by exhibiting his own cloying neurosis: "I thought you finally got a good look at me…and thought 'What am I doing with this pathetic, scrawny little paranoid Jew?'" In "The Ignorant Girl," a girl reveals to her one-night stand that she was raped in her youth, and her honesty wins her only contempt moments later in a dark hotel room: "She was not pretty, but any flesh might tempt me." In "Simone," a divorced man yearns for "bright and beautiful" hookers to cope with his midlife crisis. Ushering us through such uncomfortable moments, Burgin both redefines the loser and reminds us of our vulnerability, that "blankness like a white sheaf of sky" that can suddenly appear unannounced on a loved one's face, disturbing our reverie and shattering carefully erected facades.
We're left to marvel at Burgin's unflinching revelations about how people mistreat themselves and others, seeing snippets of ourselves in his characters—people who've been discarded, ostracized, or ignored; those whose desires have been dampened, who grapple with their roles in relationships and families. In "The Usher Twins," perhaps the book's most wrenching story, married Madeline and the engaged Chris—who have passionately met once during their teenage years—conduct an "affair" through an intense series of letters, which also chronicle the difficulties of living with their partners: Madeline's husband verbally abuses her, and Chris's girlfriend seems mostly oblivious to his presence. Madeline and Chris both seek to flee their unsupportive and apathetic others, but are hamstrung by geographical distance and a sense of duty; Madeline, in particular, dreamily calls herself Chris's "whine merchant still intoxicated with you," but cannot imagine escaping her obligation to her two children and the institution of marriage—the very obligations that prevent her from finding any happiness.
Like Madeline, many of Burgin's characters resolve not to be defeated when pushed to the brink by the forces that would control them—yet, tragically, are so flawed or laden with baggage as to be fated for defeat. There are some overwritten moments—it's hard to believe it when a character reports that "[w]ords that I'd never thought of or almost never said began to dominate my conversation and thoughts and took on the power of mantras." But our belief that the population of The Spirit Returns might actually exist, struggle, cope, and dream, is unwavering. An approachable, unsettling collection of air-tight stories with evocative and empathetic protagonists, Spirit does us a service by keeping human woundedness and resilience fresh in our minds.