EPIGRAPH: "The writers who don't discuss character but problems -- social problems or any problems -- take away from literature its very essence. They stop being entertaining. We, for some reason, always love to discuss and discover character. This is because each character is different, and human character is the greatest of puzzles. No matter how much I know a human being, I don't know him enough. Discussing character constitutes a supreme form of entertainment." – I B Singer, in an interview with Richard Burgin, 1985
For years I told myself not to think about the time I asked a girl in our lit class for a date, because I had doped out a quiz question during a study session. “Oh, I’m not interested in that.” This not thinking is the adjustment a mediocrity makes. In Richard Burgin’s title story, the narrator tells himself not to think because he can’t help thinking as he balances various past acts with now-possible responses, in order to end up with an authentic and honest awareness. “The human character is the greatest of puzzles.”
The narrator tells himself not to think of the stairs of his childhood house, with the weeping willow in the outfield when he played baseball, “the impermanence of art” (he’s an artist), or the way he will never be loved as his mother (and her white poodle) loved him. He thinks of his son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, and is enormously creative, cannot find friends (due to impulsive social skills and narrow focus), and lives with his mother. Don’t think about the sadness of his divorce? As impossible as not thinking about how much fun he and his boy have when they are together. Or as hard as not thinking of girlfriends who might have nurtured him but couldn’t: “some fear or other always interfered.”
He’s ready, this guy, to think not only about his son’s laughter, but about an old friend he called up (he had forgotten her number), and found out one of her sons died in a freak accident, and now she’s experiencing “your own greatest fear.” Don’t think of how she sounded on the phone, “her hello from hell.”
One way to recognize what Burgin is doing is to note the amount of thinking his characters are able to do, or to avoid doing. The eponymous Olympia is a celebrity who had used inherited wealth, shrewdness, beauty, and personal charisma to become a power in the art world with her collection, and in Hollywood as a producer. She parties with Edward Albee, Woody Allen, Gloria Vanderbilt, and others. Childless, a sensitive and generous person to lovers and patrons, she has an exemplary public life. In her bedroom are two cherished dolls with “overly sensitive expressions.” Her story is told by a former lover, a photographer whom Olympia provided with his only art exhibit. The distance the narrator provides gives the reader a chance to wonder whether those dolls, which Olympia clutches in times of reminiscence, are a self-indulgent way of not-thinking or a recognition. The photographer has no kids either, and is now has a run-of-the-mill business far from New York. He will die alone. Olympia will have hundreds of mourners. Think about that.
Three stories are about denial, two of them about men fearful of being pursued by other men. Both have a moving domestic echo (as in fact do all the tales).”Uncle Ray” may be, and possibly still is, a boyish, athletic local character with a broad “fairly toothy” smile the protagonist remembers on a visit to his boyhood home. He tells the story to himself, sitting on its steps. That makes its perspective on “don’t think” unique. He does remember—Uncle Ray’s swimming naked, his huge (apparently not erect) penis, his touch upon the boy’s shoulder as he jumped into the water. All these years later, the protagonist feels that Ray “should apologize for giving you such a detestable memory,” one which he told no one, except when transformed into a kind of joke. The story has an elegiac ending. Looking up at the stars above his old home, “you” stays there until he has remembered father, mother, and brother smiling, so that “you could see parts of their teeth like tiny stars in the night.”
In the following story, a man walks into a bar. There he finds a cowboy, who says he has been waiting for him all his life. In Philadelphia. The man, who has been experiencing a freezing spot on his neck, is thinking, or rather trying and failing for a long time not to think of far off and recent sexual encounters that might have resulted in his arrest. He bolts from the bar, and runs back to his apartment. There, like the “you” in the previous story, he spends a long time gazing at a photo of his parents., taken when he was three. They are smiling, and still alive. He feels safe. No cowboy in sight.
Also not taking the act of discovery too far are two young women, Margo and Deneen, sharing memories of their favorite teacher, now deceased. A charismatic star on campus, Peter was dismissed for sleeping with students, and giving them cocaine. One of those students was Margo. The less reckless, more academically inclined, Deneen, whom the professor declined to sleep with, is writing his biography. “Of course he wanted to be remembered.” She is the one who loves him. Because of the nature of memory, and because “people have so many sides to them,” what use is it to be remembered? Deneen might do a whitewash; Margo begins to resent her. Deneen envies Margo. And Peter, who spent a lot of time fighting his dismissal, and then cancer: was he an innocent, a manipulator, or a victim, and thus similar in one way or another to both Margo and Deneen? After just one conversation about him, Margo and Deneen are no longer friends. Thinking about Peter, they are even more intensely thinking about the sides each other have: spoiled, predatory, deceptive, showing off, and collecting injustices.
There are quite a few loners in these stories, risking exposure and enforced isolation. In “The House Visitor,” the loner is a cabbie, alienated from his abusive alcoholic father who wanted his loved ones to be equal to him in suffering. His profession gives him an excuse to enter many homes, where he thinks of those living there as “aliens.” The family life in these houses is indeed foreign to him, because he thinks they are so much more “normal.’ He is careful to make himself invisible during his visits, and when confronted, there is the ready-made excuse. There is no indication he confronts the reasons he does what he does. But in these moments of spying, he does not have to think of his father. This gives the story a certain frisson—it could happen to you.
One of Robin Williams’ greatest roles was as a “One Hour Photo” developer, working in a Walmart-type store. He fantasized himself into the lives of customers whose family pictures he developed for them, through chatting with them and observing what was beyond the smiles and poses in their photos. He knew them better than they allowed themselves to know themselves. As the House Visitor says, “It’s like entering a person’s mind.” Beyond his loneliness lies an intensity and insight that is apparently not available to those who enjoy the contentedness associated with the institution of family.
The final story is entitled “The Intruder.” She is named Desdemona, after one of Shakespeare’s most famous victims. She breaks into the home of Arthur, who is hardly a king, but rather an old man whose daughter, he thinks, is distant and uncaring. Arthur becomes dependent on Desi’s company, giving her a room and money, and craving the perfunctory hug before she left for the day. The disappointed expectations that existed with his wife and daughter did not exist, and this makes Arthur happy. But then Desi comes to realize that Arthur wants something, and she apparently thinks about her experience with her own family. Her mother died early; her father introduced her to drugs, and stole her money. The end comes when Desi wanders off, and Arthur cannot believe that she is no longer available for the occasional hug. Nor is his own daughter, also wandering somewhere. “Who says the old do not feel passion.” Passion?
Don’t Think is part of a series of contemporary fiction published by Johns Hopkins Press, known for its rather expensive Ebooks, literary criticism, and the Project Muse database of academic material, available on subscription. Burgin’s stories are written in extremely clear colloquial language, commonplace in the best way. The appropriateness to character and situation is flawless. If there is one key word for Don’t Think, it is “home.” If there is a theme, it is about the consequences of being there, or having been there, as we all have.