Richard Burgin, Rivers Last Longer
Publisher: Texas Review Press
2010, 224 pages, paperback, $19
barry auer, the anti-protagonist of Richard Burgin’s Rivers Last Longer, is charming and intelligent, yet his alternate personality, Gordon, is a sexually violent psychopath who carries around the ashes of his recently departed mother when he visits prostitutes. Elliot, Barry’s estranged best friend, reenters Barry’s life unaware of his friend’s dangerous hobbies. The two attempt to start a literary magazine in New York; Elliot does not have Barry’s wealth, but he is a talented writer, a trait Barry does not possess, and together, the pair moves forward with the magazine, rekindling their lost friendship. But when Elliot falls in love with Cheri, a beautiful artist, Barry and his alternate personalities feel threatened, and Barry’s world is in peril. Rivers Last Longer marks Richard Burgin’s thirteenth published book, and this five-time winner of the Pushcart Prize shows his keen wit throughout the novel.
We’re never asked to sympathize with Barry. He wasn’t abused as a child. His mother wasn’t emotionally distant or controlling. The reader finds none of the typical devices often employed in literary thrillers to help us empathize with an anti-protagonist like Barry. Instead, the reader is rewarded by Burgin’s lavishly detailed portrait of a psychopath, which engages the reader through fascination rather than mock empathy or shock. The private world Barry has made for himself threatens to dissolve at any moment, a threat that fills his life with anxiety and gives his character an almost manic voice:
Lately, women had been tricking him a lot one way or another. There was Marianne and the whore in Madrid and then Jordan, who had more than tricked him. It was the essence of humiliation, he thought, the very essence, and yet it had happened again tonight, this time while his mother’s coat was only a few feet away.
Burgin is a master of personal apocalypse, and his literary landscape flawlessly mirrors contemporary life. Barry’s personality is a constant negotiation. At one moment Barry is the protagonist, and the next moment his personality shifts into his alternate personality, Gordon, the antagonist. Having the protagonist also be the antagonist might prove to be problematic for a lesser writer, but Burgin develops both personalities with a delicate brush, beautifully illustrating each personality’s neuroses, which drives tension in every turn of the novel. This tension develops a sense of dread each time Barry finds himself in crisis with his other personality.
The dread of public apocalypse pervades so much of popular culture and even literary culture that we often forget that the most terrifying disaster awaits in the revelation that the ones we care about might someday be monsters. Burgin elegantly foreshadows this disaster from Cheri’s point of view, writing:
When they reached the park, and the arch first came into sight, she caught a brief glimpse of Barry without his noticing. The sun was shining directly above him and in the glare his face looked distorted, almost preternatural. It was strange how two people, like Barry and Elliot, could be the same age and size but if one of them took a step too near the sun, as Barry had now, he could deviate so sharply from the other, as if grotesquely lighted from within. Cheri moved a step closer to look at Barry’s face again and realized he was smiling. It was one of the strangest smiles she’d ever seen.
What awaits Elliot and Cheri once Barry reveals the extent of his madness is nothing short of calamity—a personal apocalypse—and there are few writers who can match the complexity of Richard Burgin’s dread-filled characters.
Be warned: reading this book may make you look skeptically at your loved one’s warm smiles, fearing that those you know and love may be more dangerous than the strangers you pass while walking down a darkened street. In Richard Burgin’s literary world, characters are haunted by the beautiful, grotesque strangeness within us all.