Rivers Last Longer, by Richard Burgin, a book review by Miriam N. Kotzin
At once terrifying and darkly funny, Richard Burgin's Rivers Last Longer is a thrilling, brilliant book, impossible to put down, much less forget. That this is so will be no surprise to those who have read Burgin’s superb short story collections or first novel, Ghost Quartet. Burgin does not flinch in his presentation of flawed characters, capable both of extreme generosity and extreme cruelty.
The springs of their cruelty flow from their vulnerability, the pain of slights--real and imagined--especially in sexual situations. So it is with Barry Auer (Our Barry?), rich, single, smart, good-looking, eloquent--and evil. He is the man mothers warn their daughters about.
Barry—who calls himself Gordon when he’s preying on women—lives both in Manhattan’s Beekman Place and Pennsylania’s Exton, a suburb of Philadelphia. In Exton he has soundproofed an apartment, which becomes the lair to which “Gordon” takes women he’s picked up in Philadelphia bars. Burgin could not have invented—or, in this case, chosen, a better place name with the suggestion (X) of mystery and annihilation.
Having inherited money after his mother’s death, Barry travels, carrying his mother’s ashes with him, stashing the urn under the hotel and motel beds during his violent encounters with prostitutes. The title of the novel is a reference to what one of these women, Jordan, says—that she’s chosen her name not for the country but the river, because “Rivers last longer.” Could any male name be closer to “Jordon” than “Gordon”?
The novel opens with a scene in which Barry is standing looking down at his shirts on his bed, “like souls in purgatory waiting to be judged.” Barry is the judge. This prepares us for the later scene in which he/Gordon forces one of his victims to kneel and pray to him. And, with its echoes of Gatsby, it alerts us to a constructed identity.
The opening paragraph also finds Barry thinking about his childhood, a fleeting memory. When he discovers photographs and a twenty-year-old letter from Elliot in the pocket of his mother’s fur coat that he’d brought with him, “a miniature museum of sacred memories,” tears spring to his eyes. He decides to call Elliot—again, and not hang up as he’d done before after hearing his voice—because, “It was evil not to follow through on good ideas.”
So it is that we are introduced to Barry— certainly quirky, even eccentric, but not yet frightening and bizarre. Seeing him so vulnerable, wounded, we, like his female victims, do not perceive him as evil. After all, how can someone be evil who worries about evil?
Barry persuades Elliot to move into the apartment that his mother had occupied, right below his, by offering him use of the apartment, rent-free.
Elliot has been teaching in Philadelphia, but his teaching contract will be ending, and Barry uses that, along with the prospect of the long-deferred dream of co-editing a literary magazine—a project the boyhood friends had once planned—to persuade him to accept his offer.
When Elliot meets a woman, Cheri, at a party to which Barry has taken him, he’s smitten. And, happily, so is Cheri. Barry becomes obsessed by Elliot’s girlfriend and tags along on dates, invites her to come with them to literary events.
The reader can see where this is leading. Each violent encounter Barry/Gordon has had makes his interest in this woman more certainly disastrous, for his own distress becomes less guilt and more fear that he will be discovered. Barry/Gordon has his own internal “police” to whom he sometimes yields. As the novel progresses, the voices of the “police” become a persistent note. But because he sees even his internal police as separate from himself, he is able to fight and dodge them.
Rivers Last Longer begins with Barry’s point of view, and it is his point of view—and Gordon’s---that we are given through most of the novel, but not all. Some of the chapters are Elliot’s, some Cheri’s, and some belong to one of Gordon’s victims. Rather than defusing the tension, these intervening chapters ratchet it upwards. Moreover, Burgin has a remarkable ability to create female characters and write from their point of view.
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment all echo in Rivers Last Longer. Like these works, Burgin’s novel is a novel of character, but one in which the plot will carry along someone less interested in worrying over imagery than in finding out what happens next. In fact, reading the novel for the first time, one wants to do precisely that—read and turn the page-- and only later return to savor the details that make this a stunning novel.
Rivers Last Longer, by Richard Burgin. Huntsville, TX: Texas Review Press 2010. 224 pages. $26.95.