Exploring who we are and how we got that way could be a tired exercise, but not in the hands of Richard Burgin. His new short-story collection...

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“The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs”
by Richard Burgin
Ontario Review Press, 330 pp., $24.95

Exploring who we are and how we got that way could be a tired exercise, but not in the hands of Richard Burgin. His new short-story collection, “The Identity Club,” uses original plots and sharp, witty interior dialogue to excavate his characters’ sense of self.

In the title story we meet Remy, who works at a New York ad agency, as he gets ready for a meeting of the Identity Club. Remy is a meek, 29-year-old worker bee. The Identity Club that Remy hopes to join has already colored his drab life.

The club’s premise calls for thoughtful, undying commitment. All members adopt the identity of a famous dead artist — writer, painter, musician. At the meeting Remy hangs with Edgar Allan Poe and listens to Bill Evans on piano. Remy is swept up in the experience and shoves aside all the talk of reincarnation, until he realizes the members are dead serious about becoming their characters.

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In Burgin’s hands Remy is an empty vessel. Totally lacking self worth, Remy’s remedy is to grab the imagined.

In this story and others Burgin shapes his characters through dialogue, much of it interior dialogue. Often it’s the sentence after the one spoken, the silent response, that reveals true emotions and motivations.

In the story “My Sister’s House,” grown siblings struggle with overbearing parents. Daneen is four years older than Daniel. Daniel tells the story of growing up under a father who was a huge figure in the Philadelphia theater community and a mother who was a renowned actress. He calls them king and queen. “You are born into a kingdom and you spend the rest of your life remembering it.” That’s what’s left for Daneen and Daniel. By the time they reach midlife they finally help each other accept their upbringing, including some dark secrets, and move on.

This collection has its share of murder and rape, but Burgin’s original technique makes each story compelling. In “My Sister’s House,” Daniel overhears his sister crying and a friend asking: “Does Daniel know?” You have to keep reading to learn what Daniel doesn’t know.

In “My Black Rachmaninoff,” the narrator searches for the identity of the pianist she hears every day in her building. With little information and lots of assumptions she believes the musician is the black man who runs the elevator. She seduces him. But is he the one? You have to keep reading to find out.

The domineering parent in “The Victims” is Roberta, single mom of Andy. Andy and Marty are best friends growing up. It is Marty who tells the story of his own underachievement and Andy’s successes in everything from women to college boards.

Roberta supports Andy as he drops out of college and moves to New York City, then Paris, to become a writer. An ardent defender of her son’s talents and impecunious choices, Roberta finally admits she cannot support her son forever.

In the end it is Marty who realizes that both mom and friend simply loved Andy too much for his own good.

Not all of the 20 stories in this collection are new but all are polished, insightful and make us curious about how our upbringing dictates our reactions to everyday events.

“The Identity Club” comes with a music CD of songs and pieces written by Burgin. The CD is not related to the book and fortunately I listened to the CD after reading the book. Burgin should stick to prose.