Barthelme tells his story in the present tense, a technique that was relatively common by the time of the story’s publication in 1982. The effect is to negate the ordinary sense of a story as history unfolding in time; instead, it is all very flat and immediate, like a cubist painting. There is no attempt, that is, to provide any sense of historical perspective, of Edward’s past bearing down on and shaping his present. The story says: This is what life is for Edward today; then today vanishes, leaving only the faintest trace.
The use of the second-person point of view is much rarer, and the effect is problematic. First-person narration invites the reader’s identification with the narrator; second demands it. This is not simply Edward’s life, the persistent “you” seems to say, but yours, the reader’s. The danger is obvious, and explains why “you” is hardly ever used in this way in fiction. Most readers will resist, deny emphatically that their lives and Edward’s have anything significant in common.
Just as significant as the details Barthelme provides are those he omits. He never mentions Edward’s last name, the city in which he lives, the work he does, anything about his past except the “thing” with Carmen, his age, what he looks like, or what he may be thinking. Edward is Everyman living anywhere; in this world, all that matters is surfaces. Thus, the reader sees “Eileen’s stiff hair, like a giant black meringue, ris[ing] over the top of the fence” and gets a detailed catalog of the items that Edward looks at in the K & B Pharmacy. Barthelme describes the interiors of apartments but not of people. The inner lives of his characters are only hinted at—and that hint suggests that there is little within them that is worth mentioning.
Every year, creative writing programs produce an increasing number of “certified” writers who dutifully make their effort to expand the literary horizon by bombarding The New Yorker with reams of their work. For many of these aspiring writers, a single publication in that august magazine constitutes literary success. It was therefore with great envy that such writers began to notice, early in the 1980’s, the regular appearance of Frederick Barthelme’s short fiction in The New Yorker. For a period of more than two years, it seemed that he was publishing there almost at will, sometimes twice a month. Such a rate of acceptance is quite unusual and suggests that there is something special about Barthelme’s stories. In a time when major publishers generally have limited interest in collections of short stories, the very publication of Moon Deluxe (thirteen of the seventeen stories of which originally appeared in The New Yorker) is a tribute to an important new writer.
Barthelme’s stories take place in the South, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi or in the humid southeast corner of Texas around the Houston metropolitan area, but instead of the conventional, drawling, rural, lower-class Southerners or “urban cowboys” that would be expected in stories set in these locales, one meets educated, suburban men and women, usually with good jobs, though not high-level executive or professional jobs. They work in offices, explore new restaurants on the weekends, and live in apartment complexes with swimming pools and cable television. They are the consumers to whom Madison Avenue pitches so much of its advertising, the white-collar middle class, and their situations, interests, and surroundings are interchangeable from Chicago to Biloxi, from Seattle to Philadelphia. They live in the mass-produced, prepackaged America so familiar from coast to coast, shopping in Safeways, driving Jettas, smoking Kools, eating at McDonald’s, and drinking Mountain Dew. Only occasionally does the location have anything to do with their lives, as when a character notices the weather or drives along the Gulf of Mexico. Otherwise, these characters are deracinated, fundamentally separated from the natural environment.
It is this deadpan, affectless rendering of a deracinated America that Barthelme’s fiction most closely resembles that of his older, better-known brother, Donald Barthelme, whose influence he has acknowledged. Most people in the United States lead lives similar to those of Barthelme’s characters, but a nagging discomfort settles in as the reader recognizes himself in these cool-eyed, unflinching observations. In one story, a character buys Curad bandages because he likes the color of the package. He does not need bandages; he does not buy them to prepare for some future emergency—he simply likes the color of the package. If one considers this odd behavior, one ought to consider the large sales of such “indispensable” items as Mr. Coffees, CB radios for automobiles, and electronic alarm watches that play “Dixie.” Indeed, one cannot help but feel the jabs in Barthelme’s detached appraisal of contemporary life. With the abundance of consumer goods and entertainment available, why is there so much restlessness? Why do so many Americans resemble the character in “Pool Lights,” who has subscribed to and pack-ratted heaps of magazines that he never reads? Tired by the very idea of reading them, he occasionally makes plans about what he might do with them but ends up doing little more than thumbing through Stereo Review and looking at pictures of...