Emma Who Saved My Life

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

From the moment Gil steps off of a Greyhound bus in New York City, his mind filled with visions of his eventual success as an actor, he is forced to modify his expectations: Lisa, his only “friend” in the city, who was supposed to be waiting at the depot for him, and for whom he has a rehearsed kiss primed to lead later to more than kissing, is not there. After she arrives and guides him into the belly of the city, he is frequently unnerved by the actual world he has entered, his glib narrative style notwithstanding. For him, over the next ten years, it is a world of seedy apartments, multiple female roommates, cheap wine, herpes, insignificant acting parts, robbery, alcoholic and egomaniacal actors, bizarre auditions, and--most bizarre but utterly believable of all--Emma Gennaro.

Gil wants to believe, five years after losing Emma, and during which time he has returned to the Midwest, married, and fathered a child, that she “saved” his life from slipping into “normalcy,” “averageness,” and “happiness.” Gil seems painfully close but desperately resistant to admitting that he opted for armchair dreaming amidst the trappings of normalcy. Indeed, Barnhardt’s use of irony and social satire is masterful, as when Emma earns money as the female voice in a dial-sex business, her lewd monologue punctuating a speech by Ronald Reagan that Gil is watching on the television--both events rhetorically seductive but shams. Distinguishing between life-saving and life-destroying illusions is Barnhardt’s central concern here, creating fiction of enduring vitality his great talent.