I was sad to learn that Ken Burger passed away yesterday. Ken was an extraordinary Southern writer that didn’t receive nearly enough accolades for his work. Most of the people of South Carolina and the Lowcountry know Ken as a columnist. He spent much of his career covering sports, but he was much more than just a “sports guy.” He was a brilliant writer that could turn a Southern phrase like no one else. I just happened upon his book Swallow Savannah one day while killing some time in Barnes and Noble. I Picked it up, cracked the cover and read the first line.
William often walked the back roads of Bluff County at night, his blackness lost in the shadows of low-hanging live oaks, his existence all but invisible to white people.
I was hooked. The book belonged to me, not just because I purchased it, but because it spoke to me in away that very rarely happens. Burger had a way of drawing you into a story and surprising the shit out of you with explosive moments mixed in with the serenity of Southern normalcy. He wrote with both charm and grit, daring the reader to not recoil and then turn the page to devour more of the forbidden text.
I went to the Post Office nearest my neighborhood one day, and as I was traversing the parking lot, I looked up to see Ken Burger walking towards me. My first thought was, “Holy shit! Ken Burger lives near my house!” My second thought was that this would be my best chance to tell an author I admire just how much his work meant to me. The problem is I am a painfully shy and awkward person in the real world. I don’t exactly possess the kind of extroverted qualities that require the kind of bold move it would take to walk up to a perfect stranger and introduce myself, much less fawn all over them like a fanboy.
But this speaks to the power of Swallow Savannah. I was able to suppress my inhibitions. I walked up to him, stuck out my hand, probably like a nervous idiot, and did something I never do, I initiated a conversation with someone I don’t know.
“Yes.” He shook my hand, but eyed me with a suspicious glare. He was a columnist for the Post and Courier who had written a number of disparaging remarks about virtually every college football program in South Carolina at one time or another. He was never one to hold back. He was most likely sizing me up to see if I was about to rake him over the coals for some blasphemous remark he had made about either the Gamecocks or the Tigers.
“I just wanted to let you know that Swallow Savannah is one of my favorite books. You actually had me saying, ‘Oh my, God!’ out loud on more than one occasion.”
He chuckled. “Well, thank you. That is so nice of you to say.”
He let me know about his next book, and we parted ways. I didn’t get his autograph. I didn’t take a selfie with him. I didn’t even tell him I was a writer too. I just shared a private moment with one of my favorite writers and let him know what his work meant to me. It was all I needed, and I hope he got some satisfaction out of the encounter too.
To Ken Burger I say thank you for writing one of my favorite books.