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Review: Burgin's 'Rivers' provides scares, and reason to reflect

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2010 - Egomaniac. How many times have people used that word as a cliche exaggeration to describe someone who thinks the whole world is for him, where he lives is the center of it all and its central issue will continually be what he is doing.

In Richard Burgin's new novel, his second, "Rivers Last Longer," we meet just such a man. With no exaggeration whatsoever, he is an actual egomaniac and increasingly dangerous to all around him.

Richard Burgin, who founded and edits Boulevard, maybe one of the nation's best literary magazines, has been teaching at Saint Louis University for nearly 15 years. The magazine has won many awards and published many of the most noted names in contemporary U.S. literature. Burgin's stories have won multiple prizes and he has built an international readership of his own. He is known in France, for example, where a new Burgin reader is being prepared for publication next year.

Burgin has also worked in association with the glitterati for decades, from interviewing Jorge Luis Borges to producing a book with artwork by Gloria Vanderbilt. In short, Burgin knows the celebrity world of writers and artists, philanthropists and even Hollywood players. In his new novel, Burgin deliberately takes us on a tour of some of the manias of the demimonde, including bizarre performance artists and clueless starlets.

The central egomaniac is named Barry. He is a New Yorker, in his late 30s, rich enough to have no job at all but still live in a handsome three-story home in Beekman Place, one of Manhattan's oldest and most deluxe neighborhoods. Barry is not quite a writer. He certainly wants to be a great writer and has apparently published a few short literary pieces.

And now he is about to launch a new literary magazine that will change everything for him and everyone around him. Or so he seems to believe, but what Barry says is always questionable.

Besides lying to other people, both casually and obsessively, Barry has even found a way to go beyond lying to himself. He has developed an alter ego named Gordon. And the book opens with the disturbed Gordon picking up an unknown woman in a bar.

That woman is a familiar character by now for readers and movie-goers. In this case, her name is Susan. She's lonely, unmarried, not too sophisticated, and she's foolishly decided to have a little excitement and let a man pick her up in a tavern. She may expect to scare herself, just a touch, with her own daring.

Instead, she meets Gordon, who really is about to change everything for her, but not quite the way either of them has planned.

Maybe the most chilling, thrilling image the American public anticipates is the lone woman on an empty street, clicking provocatively along on her stiletto heels while being watched and followed. Everybody gets the point of such a scene.

Writers and psychologists know that expectation is the key to many pleasures. Males get to imagine secretly walking behind an attractive woman who could be yearning for someone just like them, females get to imagine being secretly admired by some powerful man of their dreams, viewers and readers get to follow the events anonymously from their comfy chairs.

We have learned to love the pleasures of such fear from "Psycho," from "Thelma and Louise," from the Twilight series. (When will he bite her? She's so ready!) In centuries past, people learned the same pleasures from novels like "Wuthering Heights," from fairy tales of some wolfish Beast following some sweet little red-and-white Beauty, from myths of handsome hunters spying on naked goddesses.

So Burgin has no need to prepare us for the sex-crazed chase. He opens with it, diving right into the danger and the mania. Then, in effect, he takes on a tour of the backstory, emphasizing a curious current version of the story: the New York worlds of wealth, art, literature and cinema.

Many of us may never have considered those four "worlds" connected, but of course they are all part of the demimonde, that buzzing little world of hot ambition, matched by other little self-important enclaves in Hollywood, Paris, and no doubt in Tokyo and Beijing, too.

Burgin has other interesting ideas on his mind and built into his novel.

One is that New York's egomania is an updated version of "The Great Gatsby."

Gatsby is a shadow in the background for most of the story, alluded to half a dozen times, including direct references to Barry's "Gatsbyish smile." The story also has a best-friend figure, Elliot Martin, who operates much like Gatsby's friend, Nick Carraway, telling us the background of crazy Barry but suggesting that Barry isn't really all that bad.

And the story literally opens with an allusion to the silk-shirt scene in Gatsby: "The shirts lay across his bed like souls in purgatory waiting to be judged." The shirt Barry finally chooses keeps reappearing throughout the story.

Students of the American Dream know that one of the saddest moments in "The Great Gatsby" comes when the romantic Gatsby takes Daisy, his long-lost love, on a tour of his gaudy mansion, ending in the bedroom where he shows her all his shirts, piling them up like baubles from a treasure chest, as if somehow he collected them for her alone. Daisy, who might well have laughed, is at least refined enough to cry instead. Gatsby is hopeless, and she knows it.

Beyond Gatsby, Burgin seems to be thinking about zombies and vampires. Say what you will about the endless stories of monsters-who-bite for teens and tweens in the past few decades, those increasingly gothic tales seem to be onto something.

What Burgin does is take such stories and try to deal with them in what is called, oddly enough, a literary novel. He is writing more in the tradition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than in the pattern of Twilight. His tale seems to lead us to the question of whether such genuine egomaniacs may not be more "normal" than we have realized.

One curious point is that the title comes from a single piece of dialogue that seems far afield from the center of the story. The author's title is his business but if a good friend had sat down with him for a beer-before-publication, maybe "Love Hunt" might have been suggested, which happens to be the sneering nickname that Barry gives to one of his victims, one he foolishly fails to give sufficient respect.

So this novel may not be perfect, but what novel ever was? "Rivers Last Longer" can still put a serious scare on you and it drops in some snarky satire along the way, aimed mostly at "crazies" who are not yet certifiable but are definitely in abundance wherever fame and fortune begin to pile up.

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has been a regular contributor to the Beacon on books and movies.

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