The Brothers Summary (Frederick Barthelme)

Frederick Barthelme

The Brothers

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At the center of this seemingly casual story is a one-night stand during which Del may or may not have consummated sex with his brother’s wife, Margaret. Less than a month since his divorce papers became final and deadened by job failures in Houston, Del has driven to Biloxi, Mississippi, to claim a shabby condominium given him outright by his former wife’s rich father. Brother Bud and wife are already tenuously situated nearby. Bud teaches at a party school, a junior college on the Gulf coast, but has once again bolted from wife and hearth for another stab at Hollywood when Del arrives. Rapport between Del and his brother’s wife appears to have been well established before, and each find solace in the other’s conversation and arms. With the predictable return of Bud from California, the tryst takes on all the more force for its understated acknowledgment by the principals.

The fourth in the novel’s foursquare coterie is Del’s new girlfriend, Jen, who brings black humor to the book as the one-woman publisher of a “terrorzine,” a handout variously titled REALLY NICE STORIES and ORGAN MEATS that feasts on cribbed unmentionables. Jen, who is also on the run, is another diamond in the rough who presses Del to fix the damage he imagines he has done to his relationship with Bud.

Although writing in the postmodern minimalist vein which his late brother Donald Barthelme harks back to Hemingway and his protagonist Jake Barnes of THE SUN ALSO RISES in revealing the games the wounded play with themselves to keep their moral wounds hidden. The final scene, with a drunken and heartsick Bud wrapping himself into a mummy from a child’s game he and Del once played, provides a terrifying coda.