Shadow Traffic, Richard Burgin’s newest collection of short fiction is brilliant, arguably his best book yet.  Burgin fans will recognize his world-view:  lonely men and women, vulnerable, haunted by memory, desire, and guilt. The city is indifferent to its inhabitants, the isolation of the suburbs is worse.  The desire for love is often thwarted in these stories; the expression of friendship, misunderstood. Burgin’s characters, like Poe’s, suffer from being “hyperconscious [of time]” and “hypervigilant, as if always being watched or judged.” But through the Stygian atmosphere, glimmers of hope appear when protagonists conquer their weakness to act without self-interest, and a father’s love is a steady beacon.

As in The Identity Club, Burgin invents organizations that promise relief from psychic pain. In Shadow Traffic’s eponymous “Memo and Oblivion” drugs are provided by competing organizations, one offering complete recall of the past, the other, forgetfulness.  Each initially seems attractive, but later proves threatening. The protagonist, Andrew Zorn, says, explaining his interest in Memo, “how much can you even care about your future when you know you’re going to forget almost all of it right after you live it?” The other organization offers the ability forget one’s most shame-laden memories.  Each, of course, is a trap, and Zorn must flee.  Burgin’s skill as a writer is such that the reader first desires memory, then forgetfulness.

The Global Justice Society offers solace to “those eaten up by a sense of injustice"—for example, The Global Justice Society presents its own National Book Awards and Nobel Prizes. The protagonist joins, hoping to escape the “hell” in his own apartment, and wonders if “hell just a variation or a subset of time?” As with other clubs, the GJS first seems attractive, then proves to be disappointing. The protagonist thinks justice “sounded vengeful and satisfying and so ultimately unreal.”  And so it proves to be—at least in The Global Justice Society.

The protagonist of “Memorial Day” muses, “When you’re young, you think most of what you want for yourself will eventually happen, as if some secret cosmic force is guiding you toward it.  It’s only much later that you discover you’re not going to win the Nobel Prize, or become a multimillionaire, or live for the rest of time with the love of your life.” Observations about love are typical of Burgin’s characters.  One, like this, values love highly—and sees attaining it as difficult, if not impossible.  Another, a psychotic man who has trapped a woman in his apartment at gunpoint, says, “love is just tolerated disappointment.”

Each of the stories offers its own rewards to the reader.  These are tales to be read more than once:  first to find out what happens, for Burgin is a master of suspense; then again to savor the style and profound observations about the human condition. Shadow Traffic offers further evidence that its author is one of America’s best writers of short fiction.