December 22, 2016: “Don’t Think” by Richard Burgin

Na Zdorovie, Story366! Can you believe we are down to the final ten posts of the year? Yeah, neither can I. The weirdest part of all this—and I’ve mentioned this before—is that I somehow have a ton of story collections left at my house, collections I obviously won’t get to until next year. Had you told me back in January that I could not only accumulate 366 different story collections, but somehow also procure more than I would need for the yearlong project, I would not have believed you. I have mentioned this for months, but when I started, I never, ever thought that I’d be doing 366 different authors from 366 different books. If you look back in the Story366 Archives, I started with Adam Johnson, Rebecca Makkai, and Jean Thompson, and I really though, after that, I would rotate my way through those three books, doing at least three or four stories from each, taking me to mid-January. Then I’d find more books, do the same, while also hitting anthologies and lit mags. Then I started finding more books in the crevasses of my house (heck, I just found a stack of ten down in my basement this past weekend) and started to get the idea that I could maybe assemble a new book for every day of the year. It really helped when authors—by January 2—were writing to request my address because they wanted to send me their books (and if I’m not mistaken, I’ve featured every single book that’s come to me in that way). Some time in the beginning of summer, I finally got around to writing presses and asking for review copies and that method has produced over a hundred books as well. Now, on December 22, here I am with ten days left and at least fifty books left in stacks, waiting for their turn. What have I done?

I’m really starting to have a clear picture of how I’ll run Story366 after 2016, and some time this coming week, I’ll outline those plans here. In short, I’ll keep reviewing books, new and old, but won’t do some every day, because, well, the yearlong challenge will be over and there are some days I just can’t read stories and write critical personal essays. But I still want authors and presses to send me their books and I’ll still try to get to as many books as I can. I’m not sure how I’ll index it all yet, separate 2016 from future posts, but those are the lingering details I’ll hammer out very soon.

In any case, books like Richard Burgin‘s Don’t Think, out from Johns Hopkins University Press, don’t make these final ten selections easy. I just saw an ad for Burgin’s book on FB last week and the next thing I know, I’m joining a group for the book and asking for a copy; within a day, Burgin and I are emailing each other, he’s getting my address, UPS is bringing me his book, and here we are. Had there been another book slated for today’s slot, before I saw that FB ad? Sure. But that’s book was an older release, and since I really want to promote new releases in a timely way, and the cover painting of Don’t Think is so damn cool (Look below: I love the blues [Go, Cubs!], the flashlight path in the sea, the woman with the towel …), I moved that other book to the next-year pile and jumped on Don’t Think for today.

I don’t think I’ve ever met Richard Burgin before, even though he and I have been lit mag editors for over twenty years, him longer than me, Burgin serving as the Editor-in-Chief of Boulevard for as long as I’ve been in this game. In fact, Boulevard is the first literary magazine I ever saw, ever held in my hands, ever read. Quick story: Freshman year of college, I was a mechanical engineering major and was a member of the forensics team at the University of Illinois (a team that included future poet Steve Fellner and future ABC news correspondent Steve Osunsami), carrying that pursuit  over from high school, and needed to find short stories I could use for my Prose interpretive event. In high school, the coaches just found stuff for you, but in college, my coach was all like, “Go find a good first person short story.” I was like, “Huh?” He was like, “Go to the English Library. They have a periodicals section. Find literary magazines and read stories until you find a first person story you like.” So I the English Library and went up and down the shelves, in alphabetical order, and picked Boulevard, as it was nicest-looking, I remember (though now I can’t picture that cover any more). I read through an issue or two and selected a story by a writer named Andy Solomon, cut the story down to ten minutes, memorized it, and performed that piece for the Prose event all that year (my only year in college forensics). It would be another year before I was on the other end of lit mags, before I started writing, but I’ll always remember that experience, that periodicals room, and seeing and holding a literary journal for the first time.

In any case, I read a few stories from Don’t Think and while I liked all of them, I’m going to write about the title story, “Don’t Think,” as it’s my favorite. “Don’t Think” is a story that carries the imperativeness of its title throughout most of its twenty-two pages, a narrator of sorts addressing the protagonist of the story in second-person matter, listing things that this protagonist isn’t supposed to think about. Another way to put that is that this guy, in his head, is telling himself (calling himself “you”) what to do and not to do. So, it’s that kind of stylized monologue, the kind that masquerades as a second-person imperative story, whichever way you want to look it.

Beyond this technical stuff, Burgin feeds us information about our hero bit by bit, these instructions of what not to think about slowly building a character, and eventually, a narrative. At first, we find out about his childhood, how he lived in a huge house, how his parents were both musicians (former child prodigies, in fact), and at seven years old, his father finally talked his mother into letting him quit piano lessons—which he hadn’t been taking to—and go outside to play with his friends. Most importantly, we find out that his dad was an older dad, but the cool parent, and his mom was hard on him. These facts form the future man more than anything, coming up several times later in the story.

From there, we find out that this story is being told from the perspective of a much older version of our protagonist, as he himself is an older father, trying to raise a son. All the while, he’s telling himself to avoid those mistakes his own parents made, to be a better father, but like with most parents, that’s easier said than done. He loses touch with his son in myriad ways, mainly due to the fact that he and the boy’s mother, Justine, split when his son was three. For a while they lived in close proximity (outside Philadelphia), but eventually, meeting up becomes harder and less frequent. Like a lot kids, our hero’s son, as that tween stage, starts drifting away emotionally as well as physically, locked in the world of computers and video games, spreading the divide even further.

What “Don’t Think” turns out to be, I realized, is a story about a man who loves his son, loves him so much, he can’t bear to be away from, his assigned days of the week too few and too far between. He and his son form a unique bond—my favorite part of the story—where they take on personas and identities in made-up countries and worlds that his son creates. It’s a bond that carries this man through his time alone, along with all those instructions he gives himself on how to cope, what he should avoid thinking about to not make his loneliness even worse. Some events in the story, which I’ll not reveal here, complicate things, but you’ll have to find that out for yourself.

As a father of two boys, and the son of a father, I’ve always been a sucker for father-son stories, and one as sweet as “Don’t Think”—the father such a sympathetic schlub—will get me every time. I liked all the stories I read from Don’t Think, though, glad to finally get a collection of Richard Burgin’s (he has several others) in my hands, to enjoy what he does in this form. Like me, Burgin is an author and editor, one who has been doing both for a long time, contributing to American letters, to literary citizenship, like a fiend. Glad I got ahold of this new collection—I recommend you check it out.