Frederick Barthelme 1943–
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Barthelme's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 36.
Frederick Barthelme is a minimalist writer in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway who has developed a strong cult following. He vividly describes contemporary American urban landscapes, replete with neon signs, strip malls, and fast food joints, and meticulously catalogues the superabundance of brand-name objects to emphasize the depersonalized nature of his characters and their lives.
Barthelme was born in Houston, Texas, on October 10, 1943, to Donald Barthelme, an architect, and Helen Barthelme, a teacher. Barthelme's initial interest was not in literature; instead, he studied architecture, played in a rock band, and worked as an artist. He studied at Tulane University from 1961 to 1962, the University of Houston from 1962–65, then again in 1966–67, and the Museum of Fine Art in Houston from 1965 to 1966. Barthelme's art work was featured in exhibitions in both Houston and New York City from 1965 until 1974. His early work featured ordinary objects, and then he turned his attention to conceptual art. Barthelme studied creative writing with his older brother Donald and with John Barth, both noted writers of experimental fiction. His first two books, Rangoon (1970), a collection of short stories, and War and War (1971), a novel, were both very experimental. In 1981 he began publishing short stones in periodicals such as the New Yorker. The first of his books to receive critical attention was the short story collection Moon Deluxe (1983), which was followed by the acclaimed novel Second Marriage (1984).
The stories in Barthelme's collection Moon Deluxe tackle a theme which runs throughout his fiction: relations between the sexes. The stories focus on middle-aged men struggling as their relationships dissolve and marriages end. The men are lost and lonely, and they become involved in relationships with often bizarre young women. The women in Barthelme's stories are stronger and more aggressive than the male protagonists, and they are often more vibrant and interesting. Barthelme's fiction portrays contemporary American society and the loss of traditional values. Barthelme's characters drift through life without a higher power or moral code to follow—rules are arbitrary and ignored; people are unsure of their own feelings making their relationships casual and tentative. Characters look to the everyday world and ordinary events to fill the void, and Barthelme creates a sense of wonder through his depiction of the commonplace. Two against One (1988) follows another of Barthelme's middle-aged protagonists beginning just after his breakup with his wife. There is also the typical Barthelme love triangle involving Edward, his wife Elise, and her lover Roscoe, but the novel represents a departure from Barthelme's usual style as he delves more deeply into his characters inner lives. In Natural Selection (1990) Barthelme again focuses on the dissolution of a marriage, but the tone of this novel is darker and more despairing than his earlier work. The Brothers (1993) tells the story of Del as he begins a new life following his divorce. First he has an affair with his brother's wife and then begins a relationship with a much younger woman, Jen, who is vibrant and exciting. Barthelme picks up Del and Jen's story again in Painted Desert (1995) as the couple searches for meaning while they randomly travel through the American West.
Reviewers often refer to Barthelme as a minimalist writer. Richard Eder even asserts that Moon Deluxe is "a nearly perfect minimalist work." The most often repeated praise concerning Barthelme's work is his ability to portray the contemporary American landscape. Barthelme is also noted for his straightforward style and skillful use of dialogue. In describing Barthelme's writing, Alan Cheuse says, "Barthelme tries time after time to strip away the excess in our lives [and the fat in our rhetoric] to produce a story both usefully spare and accidentally beautiful." Reviewers note that the characters in Barthelme's world are often emotionally ravaged and seem to reappear throughout his fiction with different names. Bette Pesetsky asserts that "Mr. Barthelme's male narrators change names but only occasionally identities. They have no discernible past beyond the woman who left yesterday." In addition to the lack of variety between protagonists from book to book, reviewers complain that the characters are two-dimensional and don't have enough of an inner life. Pesetsky states: "There is no question that Mr. Barthelme creates a landscape that has life. What we want is more of the human spirits who populate this world." As Barthelme's career has progressed, however, reviewers have noticed the addition of more interior reflection in his work, particularly in Two against One and Natural Selection. Francine Prose notes, "Two against One is by far the most powerful, disturbing and interior of Mr. Bartheime's fictions, inviting us to be flies on the wall of a particularly shadowy and unwelcoming corner of its hero's psyche." Despite the many assets reviewers have discovered in Bartheime's fiction, the most sweeping complaint against his work is that it simply skims the surface of things and has no lasting value. Others, however, find Barthelme's ability to portray the lack of depth of contemporary American life as his greatest talent.