Don’t Think by Richard Burgin
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016; 179 pp
Reviewed by Marc Watkins
Patient, reflective, and fully embracing the trials that come with illness and aging, Don’t Think’s stories involve accepting that the body will one day fail, but so long as the mind remains intact life can have meaning. The title story “Don’t Think” frames the collection and serves as a powerful lens to view the book. Told entirely in second person, the ageing narrator suffers from an unnamed aliment that has left him with limited mobility. He is stranded in his body, left only with his thoughts of a failed marriage and a son born late in his life who he will not live to see fully grown. The very phrase don’t think is used as a motto, a guiding principle in unlocking the richness and sadness of this world:
Don’t think of how we constantly misuse words like “forever” without grasping their meaning. We could not bear it if we did. And avoid the thought that if the world ends we’ll lose everything in art including Shakespeare and Beethoven but if the world goes on forever they’ll be lost and forgotten as well.
A novice storyteller could have easily fallen into the trap of becoming lost in the narrator’s misery, but Burgin balances his narrator’s terrible reality with striking wit and humor, as evidenced in a quiet memory of bathing his son, who asks his father an innocent question about the fate of his anatomy: “During one bath he pointed to his penis and asked you ‘Does it fall off? You wanted to say, ‘Not if you meet the right woman,’ but of course you answered the question as earnestly as it was asked.”
The sense of masterful ease in which Burgin uses unique perspectives, like second person throughout “Don’t Think” and “Uncle Ray,” shows a depth of control with form and style that only a seasoned storyteller can accomplish. The thread that ties all the stories together is a search for connection, one that often defies generational boundaries and societal norms.
In “V.I.N.”, we meet Rogers, delusional and weary of human connection, only shocked out of his ennui after encountering a cult obsessed with time. This yearning for connection often involves transgressive behavior. In “The House Visitor” a nameless cab driver invades the homes of families and searches the vacant hallways, because “When you visit a person’s house, it’s like entering into their mind.” Likewise, in “The Offering” we see the narrator seek out the company of prostitutes, paying not for sex, but for a few moments of companionship. The level of depth and characterization carried throughout the stories in the collection creates empathy in remarkable circumstances. This is especially true in “The Intruder,” when a lonely art dealer forms a bond with a homeless woman he finds living in his house.
Richard Burgin’s Don’t Think is a quiet masterpiece. It tells us that the bonds we form with people who we find or who find us are what create meaning in our lives, and the memories we carry constantly shape and revise our reality. Indeed, the final rejoinder to old age and illness in “Don’t Think” commands us to “Think of all of this as long as you can.”