Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories by Richard Burgin
Huntsville, TX: Texas Review Press
2013. 248 pp.


Hide Island , Richard Burgin's sixteenth book and eighth collection of stories, is a brilliant offering, outstanding even in the context of his previous work, which has earned a well-deserved reputation for masterful, darkly comic forays into contemporary angst and the human condition. Insightful and lucid, Hide Island is remarkable for being at once accessible and profound.

In the title story the protagonist, Justine (a nod to Sade?), serves as a day-worker housekeeper and companion for Mr. R, as she thinks of him, an aging man who talks constantly about his "son," Chris, now dead. He tells Justine about Chris, who loved to tell stories, and recounts Chris' tale of Hide Island, and the Culversons, victims of the evil doctor and his zombie creations. Justine's question about the story and Mr. R's response are relevant to Burgin's fiction.

She asks, " '... Was it meant to be a horror story or to be funny, too?'" And he answers, "'I think both. I think it was meant to be scary and funny, just like life is....' "

That's an elucidating comment, as Burgin also "mixes genres," merging genre fiction with literary fiction. (For example, the novella in this collection, "The Memory Center" is dystopian futuristic fiction and literary fiction as well.) Mr. R says that for Chris the made-up stories are " 'almost like a replacement world he entered for a good part of every day. But look at this world,' he said, suddenly gesturing with both arms. 'Can you blame him? Is it hard to understand?' "

Mr. R's apartment and the view of the beach are luxurious rather than squalid: the world he finds worthy of being replaced has less to do with economic issues than spiritual ones. Yet Mr. R's world and Justine's world intersect with a gritty reality. Justine's lover, Ruth, works as a prostitute, and Mr. R says that at a nearby hotel he's met a boy, "Emilio," who reminds him of Chris. When she asks how old the boy is, Mr. R tells her that he said he was 18. His choice of the magic age of sexual consent reveals more about his interest than he might have liked.

When Justine returns unexpectedly to the apartment, she finds Emilio—who she says seems to be a boy of 13 or 14. His behavior, however, is that of a much younger child. Even so, she tries to push away her suspicions about Mr. R, whether, like her father, he was guilty of sexual predation.

A number of the characters in this collection of stories suffer from excruciating anxiety and mistrust. The intensity of their fear of betrayal is proportional to the intensity of their desire for connection. Life is frightening, but those who suffer from psychic wounds of childhood abuse and currently cruel or stultifying relationships struggle to escape to freedom. A recurrent theme is the protagonist escaping: from captivity or, more mundanely but with no less drama, from an apartment where the "other" is sleeping—or dead.

The novella "The Memory Center" is an extension of "Memo and Oblivion" (from Shadow Traffic, 2011). Both are set in the near future in which drugs either enhance memory so experiences can be relived, or blotted out. In "The Memory Center" the protagonist, Foster, is offered the chance to have "memory replacement therapy" to remove "traumatic memories." Many of the book's themes are found here: trust and betrayal, desire and uncertainty, identity and memory, illusion and reality, family history and pain, vision and revision, claustrophobia and the need to flee. In addition to the rich thematic content, the plot is tight and suspenseful. Early in the story, a sign in the Memory Center gives the reader an idea of the hideous dichotomies of the world Foster is entering: "If you forget everything you're an animal, if you remember everything you're a monster." It is terrifying to be trapped in such a place, wholly under the control of a scientist and his minions, when the scientist is the archetype who is willing to destroy the individual in a search for perfection.

What is memory anyhow? Foster says, "Memory is vanity and so is identity. Both are illusions." The nihilism of this statement joins that of his understanding that "When you realize you're going to die still knowing nothing of the world, you see everything differently," he blurted. "Your life and everyone's is just an illusory little stage show. Some old people know this but we won't listen to them." Are we doomed to know nothing but illusion? No, Burgin's fiction says, there is a reality, one grounded in human relationships and loving-kindness.

And that is what his characters seek and the best of them offer it. Although it's never easy for them, recognizing its value, they persist in their struggle, some with more success than others. To say who is successful and who fails would be the ultimate spoiler, unfair to the reader who enjoys suspense.

The protagonist of "A Letter in Las Vegas" has an "aphorism addiction." He has a propensity for coining bons mots and making astute observations: e.g., "You die of your life," "Death is tucked into life like an invisible napkin," or "Courage, in the end, is all we have... it's even more important than our identity."

Many of the characters share that ability, marking not only a linguistic cleverness but also a keen perception of the human condition. A keeper of a contemporary commonplace book would have to hold his pen at the ready. Or at least a yellow highlighter. For example:

• What was the point of getting things you loved if you could never get them back again, if you could only lose them, as if life was nothing but an extended game of Hide and Seek? ("Atlantis")

• "I don't have any time of my own—it's the world's time, I'm just a temporary user of it" or worse than that, "if our species could just rid itself of all religions, and truly experience a collective realization of our inevitable death it could be the clearest path towards universal compassion." ("Hide Island")

• "Of course, what are phone calls but prayers waiting to be answered." ("Hide Island")

• "The healthy body is the great diverter from thinking about the world." ("From the Diary of an Invalid")

• "If the world ends, man's work won't be remembered, but if it doesn't end and time is infinite, it won't be remembered either." ("From the Diary of an Invalid")

• "Because speech was, like everything else, about aggression. You talked because you talked first. You got the power of talking because you seized it. It was the contemporary version of the western gun duel. Whoever drew first and shot killed the other with their speech—only it was a slow death through repeated verbal assault." ("Endless Visit")

The reader of Hide Island will understand why Richard Burgin's fiction has garnered five Pushcart Prizes. His work is acutely personal while it explores the human condition. Burgin is capable of enormous compassion for his characters, which we are compelled to share; this pervasive compassion illuminates even the book's darkest moments. Burgin's fiction is intellectual and at the same time intensely emotional—a rare literary experience.