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The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs by Richard Burgin


Richard Burgin's latest book, The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs, is another in his series of remarkable collections of short stories, often praised for their haunting, dark vision of life. What is less obvious to many reviewers is Burgin's passionate attention to the human community, his flashes of humor and even, yes, sweetness. In some of his stories the characters experience disillusionment, cruelty--their own and others--and indifference; yet these same stories end on optimistic notes. "My Black Rachmaninoff," "With All My Heart," "The Park" and "My Sister's House" are examples of Burgin's stories that end with hope that the characters will have new lives; they are re-born. These are not easy transformations; they come only after the characters have either faced death or a change in life as they have perceived it.

While some of Burgin's characters are tortured by guilt, self-doubt, ambition, sexual desire and loss, Burgin the writer is fearless in his fiction-making, writing with multiple points of view in a single story, and often writing from a woman's point of view, including female narrators. His characters are drawn from a range of social strata, social class being the last taboo in America.

Four of the stories in this collection have won the Pushcart Prize (only Joyce Carol Oates has won more Pushcart Prizes). They are "Notes on Mrs. Slaughter" (1982), "The Victims" (l986), "Body Surfing" (l998) and "Miles" (2002). The Pushcart series has also listed thirteen others of his stories as being among the best of the year.

The title story, "The Identity Club" has been selected for The Best American Mystery Stories of 2005. The concept is original and carried out with Burgin's unique voice. Without giving away too much, the Identity Club requires its members to adopt the identity of a famous dead artist of their choice, and live out all details of that life. This story, shares with many of Burgin's other works, the way one action leads to another, each more extreme than the last. 

We watch his characters take first baby steps and then, sometimes, a literal leap to their destiny. The progress is inexorable. The reader, however, is never allowed the luxury of distance. Burgin's stories are mesmerizing, the details chosen to put the reader, not only on the scene, but in it. This is true even with stories told in the third person.

Burgin weaves his magic spell and we find ourselves identifying with men who like to scare women, who lose control and beat up prostitutes--or who fall for streetwalkers and want to take care of them, men who carry knives and start fist-fights, or who are pathetically desperate for success and for sincere praise, men and women who are "thwarted." What many of his protagonists have in common is a loneliness exacerbated by a desire for emotional and intellectual intimacy. We follow along in their quests, riveted. What is astounding about this work is the way Burgin can make it seem as though his characters' choices are limited; their actions seem as inevitable as those in Greek tragedy without the chorus commenting. They do what they must, knowing even while they are doing it that it is a deadly choice. In "The Horror Conference," a convention of horror movie and novel fans, an attendee discovers that life begins to imitate art. In "Carbos" a nightmarish first date is told from both the male and female point of view. And in "Ghost Parks" the protagonist plays a game of pickup basketball with a homeless man and then tries to hire him to kill his wife.

This book includes a CD, "Don't Go There," of twenty pieces, mostly songs that combine art songs and jazz. With one exception, all lyrics are by Burgin--and he has composed all of the music. Like the stories they accompany, they are haunting, with complexities of harmony and dissonances that find resolution. If other book/CD combinations in one wrapper exist, I am unaware of them, so this is an event in itself. Ned Rorem has called Burgin's songs, "The Real Thing." 

It is because of the darkness (many of the stories literally take place at night), that the contrasting moments of hope of a new life are so striking. The collection concludes with "My Sister's House," ends with an epiphany: "I saw the tiger lilies, the other flowers, the high trees. I looked around myself at the tables and chairs and the paintings on the walls. Everything had an order to it; everything seemed to sparkle that second in my sister's house." So ironically, as soon as the narrator can look out rather than inward to himself, things fall into order, everything, even he, if only for "that second" can "sparkle."

Ontario Review Press, 20005.  330 pages. $24.95 (includes CD)