Frederick Barthelme

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Ann Hulbert (review date 31 October 1983)

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SOURCE: "Welcome the Wimps," in The New Republic, October 31, 1983, pp. 35-8.

[In the following excerpt, Hulbert states that in Barthelme's short story collection Moon Deluxe, the author "probes only-far enough to note that his characters are always lonely and often nervous."]

The men in Frederick Barthelme's story collection [Moon Deluxe] don't have women they can rely on, and lead irresolute lives as beauties come and go. They are roughly the same age as [Nicholas] Delbanco's characters [in About My Table] but the external similarities end there. Single, they live in the Southwest in a garish landscape of bright blue pools, lobster-pink stucco bungalow fast-food places with "oversize foul-color wrapped-in-clear-vinyl menus" worlds away from the natural hues of Delbanco's New England. Those who are employed—and most of these aimless men have no discernible occupation—work for "a company"; what kind of company, or in what kinds of jobs, we never learn. Their main activity consists in puzzling, passive encounters with women.

The interior lives of Barthelme's protagonists are more difficult to describe, even though most of the stories are narrated in the first person. These men are eerily impassive, apparently mesmerized by their gleaming surroundings—especially by sleek women (one man spends days fixated on a succession of gorgeous salesgirls at a mall). In seventeen super-realistically sharp, sometimes funny, but finally inscrutable stories (most of which previously appeared in The New Yorker). Barthelme probes only far enough to note that his characters are always lonely and often nervous.

Women are what make them nervous. Generally younger than the narrators, Barthelme's female characters are energetically bizarre where Delbanco's are businesslike, but they too are the assertive figures—not the men. Antonia of the title story is perhaps the most intimidating eyeful of them all:

… she's huge, extraordinary, easily over six feet. Taller than you. Her skin is glass-smooth and her pale eyes are a watery turquoise. Her hair is parted on one side and brushed flat back to her scalp. She [is] … wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt with "So many men, so little time" silk-screened in two lines across the chest.

As that motto suggests, these women are hungry and in a hurry, and they seem to have Barthelme's quiet men at their mercy. They corral them into cars, jabber at them, impose on them, dump them, while the men nod and feel nervous. Like so many women of yore, the men appear to be ciphers until these manic creatures arrive and rouse them. While the men wait, Barthelme frequently describes them cleaning, like fastidious housewives—emptying the refrigerator, vacuuming the carpet. When they're out with women, they're usually eating, like children—playing with their peas, piling up one-inch squares of roast beef, arranging cream containers into football teams.

What they rarely resemble are grown-up men. They take graphic note of women's bodies, but seem strangely disembodied themselves, conveying no sign of sexual energy. In fact, they're often so aloof that women lose interest (some of them inclining instead to sinister men, or to other women). This female fickleness in turn seems to confirm the men in their cautiousness, although they never reveal their thoughts or hearts. In one story, "Lumber," the subject of relations between the sexes explicitly arises—it's the implicit theme of all of the stories—but the discussion does little to clarify the protagonist's, or Bartheime's, view of the matter. Milby, one of several peripheral brutes in the collection, has just hit his girlfriend Lois and wants to discuss his brutishness with the narrator. "So talk, already," Lois's friend Cherry tells the...

(This entire section contains 1003 words.)

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two men impatiently. "Go get a steak and talk. Be men all over the place. Practice spitting." The docile narrator hardly knows how to rise to this occasion, of course, and he's not sure what to tell Milby, whose anger is so alien to him. "The thing is," Milby sputters over the steak,

"they take advantage of everything—all the differences—but you can't. You get pissed after a while."

"Everybody gets pissed." I wonder why I don't tell him what I want to tell him, why he scares me. "Who's this 'they' anyway?"

"The bitches—what are you, some Holy Ghost or something? I don't need catechism lessons, brother. It's jerks like you screw it up for the rest of us. I'm telling you it just happens, and you're telling me Hail Mary, full of grace. That's a big help."

"Yeah, O.K.," I say, cutting through my steak. "You're probably right."

It's obvious that he doesn't really think Milby is right, but it's equally clear that this uneasy narrator, like the others in the collection, has no clue about what to expect of women—how much bitchiness, how much sympathy—or of himself.

In their confusion, Barthelme's men generally resort to some version of the gawky nerd gambit: "Hoping for quick intimacy," says the narrator of "Rain Check," "I start telling Lucille the things I'm afraid of." It's hopeless: "Lucille says she's not afraid of anything, so I shut up about loneliness." And when at the very end of the story Lucille apparently decides she's ready for intimacy and asks, "So. What about a shower?" the narrator is as insecure as ever, but cagier now:

I give her a long look, letting the silence mount up. I stand there with her for a good two minutes, without saying a word, trying to outwait her, trying to see what's what…. She smiles at me as if she really does like me. Maybe we've been there longer than two minutes, but when the smile comes, I see her lips a little bit apart and her slightly hooded eyes, and she traces her fingers down my arm from the elbow to the wrist and stops there, loosely hooking her fingernails inside my shirt cuff, pinching my skin with her nails.

However lost and lonely these men may be, they are leery about being found by the reptilian women who abound, and Barthelme doesn't seem to blame them….


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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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Holly Prado (review date 6 October 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of Tracer, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 6, 1985, p. 14.

[In the following review, Prado discusses the emotional landscape of Barthelme's Tracer.]

Frederick Barthelme's new novel [Tracer] is onto some truths about contemporary Americans who exist in emotionally eerie nether worlds. Here, Florida becomes the metaphor for enticements that appear exciting but really have no depth of meaning. At one point, a life-size statue of a horse is trucked into the scene. Great trouble is taken to set the creature on a stretch of beach, but it is, after all, fake; it's only a momentary—and false—diversion.

Martin, "almost" divorced from his wife Alex, finds Alex's sister Dominica a sexual companion, but he also sleeps with Alex when she arrives at Dominica's place on the Gulf. These characters are related to each other, but not truly related at all. They bump into one another's genitals; they talk about sex as if it's vitally important, yet they never fully meet on anything but a fumbling, adolescent level. Dominica tells Martin about an article she's read on "the human parts industry." in which umbilical cords are sold to be used as arteries. In this book, human emotions are transplanted in the same way: Maybe the attachments seem to work for a while, but they don't fit naturally.

Barthelme is terse and scary about this. The vision in Tracer is that people damaged by divorce, separations or loss of love never move beyond the damage. They never grow up. They play around.

They seem to make decisions, but the decisions circle back on them. Nobody gets out of anything, although they do eventually exit from Dominica's motel-condo. Martin gets on a plane, just as he arrived on one at the beginning of the novel. Wiser? Freer? Changed? No.

"Maybe I should hang around," he says to Dominica, who replies vaguely, "Maybe I'll call you." He leaves just as lonely, if not lonelier, not unaware of his predicament but seemingly incapable of doing anything about it.

Tracer is full of weary awareness. There's simply not enough energy in this side of the American psyche to ponder large human questions, but people are, at least, direct with one another. They don't have the strength to be anything except pointedly blunt. Dominica asks, "What is this, the end of the known world?"

There's not much fertile past to hold up this kind of literature, and it probably won't be of much importance in the future. But it's important now, a moral lesson in loss of committed romantic love, loss of spirit, loss of self to the extreme where reflections of the self become absurd.

A reader is left with the same unfulfilled longing as the characters: longing for what's really great, what has real value. This makes Tracer a cautionary fable about our temptations to defend ourselves against adult life, which is always laced with pain but has to be faced with courage—even battered courage—so that change can occur.

When a child appears, enticingly named Magic, the reader hopes for a moment of vitality, perhaps the discovery of a fresh attitude in Martin. The child even sees a rainbow; surely something will break through now! But Martin's only response is that the little girl "talks a lot."

His defensive emotional state—nothing can awe him—makes change impossible. Barthelme's awfully good at this sort of thing, setting up a moment of possible breakthrough or violence, then snatching it away.

There's a sharp eye for contemporary detail at work in the writing, detail that's as soulless as the American dream of love gone sour. The distances between men and women are chillingly discerned, and the things they notice are impersonal and distanced, too: 800 telephone numbers; "those robot welders on TV news stories"; the popular music that Dominica sways along with, as if it's the only rhythm available to her.

Barthelme has created a world of disenchantment and done it well—even with humor. Not the humor of warm laughter but of maimed feeling pushed to its weirdest shores. It's frightening, but it is, after all, part of what we're about these days.

Principal Works

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Rangoon (short stories) 1970
War and War (novel) 1971
Moon Deluxe (short stories) 1983
Second Marriage (novel) 1984
Tracer (novel) 1985
Chroma and Other Stories (short stories) 1987
Two against One (novel) 1988
Natural Selection (novel) 1990
The Brothers (novel) 1993
Painted Desert (novel) 1995
Bob the Gambler (novel) 1997

Roz Kaveney (review date 21 March 1986)

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SOURCE: "A Model Muddle," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4329, March 21, 1986, p. 307.

[In the following review, Kaveney asserts that Barthelme's Tracer provides a "coherent picture of the randomness of contemporary American life."]

The sheer slimness—sheer as in nylons as well as the merely emphatic—of Frederick Barthelme's second novel [Tracer] marks a moderate advance over his already impressive Second Marriage. There is here the same seemingly arbitrary proliferation of mildly surreal incidents—a long narrative of sexual paranoia about dwarves, an aggressive hotelier with an electronic box monitoring his brain patterns, a preacher talking of the joys of self-delusion, a small child called Magic who prattles about camels—as top-dressing over the usual sexual muddle of people who have discarded morals but not basic politeness. Here, though, the brevity makes them into a coherent picture of the randomness of contemporary American life, rather than—as seemed to be the case at times in the earlier novel—a lot of good extra bits from abandoned short stories, stuck in as padding.

Like many recent American novels this one deals in a sort of charming amorality whose charm is partly that of freedom from traditional and possibly irrational guilts, partly that of intense tiredness with an existence in which taboos are forgotten rather than ever actually broken. Martin visits, in one of the less fashionable resort towns of Florida, his sister-in-law Dominica, who is trying vaguely to set up a reconciliation between him and her sister Alex before their divorce becomes final; her good intentions in no way preclude her taking him to bed.

Much of the strength of the book comes from Martin's male sense of exclusion from the shared world of the sisters; even Alex's jealous resentment is largely expressed in a private language from which he is essentially and forever excluded. Meanwhile, odd incidents seem to imply that Dominica's ex-husband is trying to pressurize her into abandoning her share of the motel she runs for him; then he turns up on a motorbike and everyone decides that he is so much nicer these days than he used to be that she must be wrong. The campaign of harassment is never traced to source, but Dominica does indeed leave the motel to work on her relationship with Alex, the reconciliation having predictably failed; Martin departs by plane in the same mood of bafflement that he arrived in; accidie and fecklessness seem more closely linked than we had imagined. Quasi-incest and cabbalistic signs in the motel car-park are ultimately not seen as more important to the characters than another motel resident's lectures about pancake-making.

Further Reading

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Ingoldby, Grace. "Without a View." New Statesman 108, No. 2803 (7 December 1984): 34-5.

States that "Barthelme concentrates on suburbia's slippery surfaces amusingly and with alarming observation" in the stories of Moon Deluxe.

Kaveney, Roz. "Making Themselves Over." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4511 (15-21 September 1989): 998.

Discusses the relationships in Barthelme's Two against One.

A review of Bob the Gambler. Kirkus Reviews LXV, No. 17 (I September 1997): 1323.

Calls Barthelme's Bob the Gambler "a novel of surprising heart and soul."

Williams, Joan. "AM the Lonely People." Washington Post Book World XIII, No. 35 (28 August 1983): 9.

Discusses Barthelme's use of characterization in the stories in Moon Deluxe.

Alan Cheuse (review date 19 April 1987)

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SOURCE: "Three Collections Keep Alive the Short Story Renaissance," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 19, 1987. p. 6.

[In the following excerpt, Cheuse asserts that the stories in Barthelme's Chroma, show "America in hard-edge patterns, colored vividly but with a certain remoteness of the heart."]

Spring—and the story collections are busting out all over. For those of you who awoke into your lives as serious readers only in this decade you'll believe, upon reading these specific spring books [all of which I recommend], that the recent, much-discussed American short story renaissance is still upon us. For those of you who remember Sherwood Anderson, you'll recall that from early in this century onward American writers turned the genre into multiple worlds in the short form, and a truly national treasure.

Nothing could appear more American than the style Frederick Barthelme has been trying over the last few years to perfect. As in the moment in the story from this collection, [Chroma,] called "Cut Glass" when a man sits in his Chicago hotel room and studies high-tech architecture magazines with photographs of homes "in which plainness is elevated to unbearable beauty," 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. Sometimes this works well, as in the lead story in this group "Driver." A California couple, now staid and middle-class but once long ago quite wild, recapture some of their old strangeness by trading their Toyota wagon for a low-riding customized Lincoln. "There was an airbrush illustration on the side, between the front and rear wheel wells—a picture of the Blessed Virgin, in aqua-and-white robes, strolling in an orange grove, behind each tree of which was a wolf, lip-curled, saliva shining."

That's about as ferocious as Barthelme's stories get—on the surface. But each sentence is so carefully, so seductively plain and seemingly innocent that the reader doesn't notice the meannness and the madness of this writer's U.S.A. until it's too late. That's in the best stories. In others, the passions of his version of our culture seem so elusive that the writer's passion to put them into narrative remains absent as well, and the reader, like the driver in the short-short "Trick Scenery," discovers that the "splash of your headlights on the road illuminates nothing."

In order to see America in hard-edge patterns, colored vividly but with a certain remoteness of the heart, try these stories. But not too many at one sitting….

Bette Pesetsky (review date 3 May 1987)

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SOURCE: "Rites of Shopping," in New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1987, p. 12.

[In the following review, Pesetsky discusses the stories in Barthelme's Chroma and states that "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."]

Frederick Barthelme, in his second collection of short stories, Chroma, drives us through an American urban landscape that has entered folklore. Folklore has a comfortable feeling as we glide past Exxon stations, mall-infested roads, an ex-Dairy Queen reappearing as a Princess Snack. It all sets our charge cards atingle. We are no longer either startled or shocked. We know that Sears will appear, and we nod our heads in recognition. The contemporary reader is too often beset by brand names.

Still, I find an exception in Mr. Barthelme's stories. Consumer passions don't seem pasted on in these stories, but rather create a texture and a spooky land for modern fairy tales. Frederick Barthelme sets this scene with wit and arrow-sharp precision. His object-oriented world is nevertheless a world. In "Cleo" we are performing the rite of shopping. "Now the three of us go through a department store at the mall, then split up and agree to meet at the fountain. I head for the mock outdoor cafe and get in line to order a chocolate-filled croissant, but a young guy with ratty hair and a silver shirt open to the waist comes in singing a torch song and pushes in front of me."

Mr. Barthelme's characters stand like skeletons of the urban psyche against this backdrop—they flit, they dawdle, they consume. They perform inexplicable acts. The narrator in "Driver" trades in his Toyota for a "killer" car—an ancient Lincoln. In "Parents" Agnes yearns for an electric mixer as a symbol of a relationship. We are back in a mall in "Magic Castle," where we find an American Indian. Like the people in his earlier collection, Moon Deluxe, the characters in Chroma flee, I fear, from one story to the next. Mr. Barthelme's male narrators change names but only occasionally identities. They have no discernible past beyond the woman who left yesterday.

His heroines are jazzy and hyper. They meet conflicts by seeking objects or by withdrawing. In "Architecture" Holly wants to get something to eat … no, she wants to go shopping … no, she wants to go to Virginia. Barring these alternatives, she picks up a hitchhiker and allows him to drive off with her car. Relationships perch on the narrow edges of what you can buy. In "Perfect Things," when Ellen confesses to her husband that she has a lover, the scene moves to all the things they hate, from positioning the window blinds to caring for the lawn, a litany of emotions directed at objects. In the title story people move in and out of one another's lives. "Alicia's taking her weekend with her boyfriend George. It's part of our new deal—she spends every other weekend with him, plus odd nights in between. The rest of the time she's with me. When we started this I thought it'd drive me crazy."

The plots of these stories are slight, the world viewed off-center. Or at the very least, everything is observed through a one-way mirror, where you record what is seen and said, and the connections are to be made later. The reader must infer the meaning from the acutely rendered dialogue. But are we given enough to do this? And does all that desultory conversation mean more than it says? In "Black Tie" the couple go for a ride, they come home. "Paul says: 'I like you, Katherine.' 'And why not? I walk, talk, ambulate, somnambulate, fox trot—why not like me?'" I FELT that I knew more about Mr. Barthelme's narrators in two of the shortest of the stories in this collection, "Trick Scenery" and "Restraint." What marks these stories is the existence of an inner life, free of the elliptical give-and-take that characterizes most of the collection. The male narrators in these stories dream, and yearn for human contact. In "Trick Scenery" the narrator's monologue defines his life. "Even without sun the heat of the afternoon, of the early evening, is unbearable, aggravating. With a woman the trees would be pretty and black, silky against the neutral sky—a woman has the power to change things." In "Restraint" the narrator is attracted to a woman he passes in the hall. "And the freckles, sweet and off-center, specks floating before her face, under the eyes, hovering like scout ships in advanced mathematical formation, fractals, ready for some mission into this soiled universe." In these two stories the accretion of detail offers us characters with mystery.

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. It is an example of the author's talent that he draws scenes that at first glance appear to be surrealistic; then you carry on and realize that this is our urbanized, wised-up America.

Susan Slocum Hinerfeld (review date 31 May 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of Chroma, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, p. 3.

[In the following review, Slocum Hinerfeld compares the stories in Barthelme's Chroma to works of Pop Art.]

Chroma is purity and intensity of color, and this is indeed a painterly book. Frederick Barthelme's counterparts in the visual arts are Warhol. Lichtenstein, Wesselman—Pop Art iconographers. Theirs is the art of selectivity, the choice of one object, one smile, one gesture, one phrase to represent all others. They are in search of the prototype that epitomizes the universal.

The Pop artist must Stop, Look and Listen. Barthelme is a good listener. He fixes on what he hears and. in a sense, plays it back for us. Is this art? Of course. There is a difference between reality and Realism. One just occurs; the other is created. These creations are vivid.

Barthelme listens to men and women in conversation. Most of it is extraordinary. Women are trying to get tough. "I don't do girl advice anymore," says one. "That's the way I am now. You'd better learn to work around it." "Settle down," orders another, a Lesbian: "Let's don't O.D. on the compassion thing." Men are shaken. An incestuous brother admits, "Getting her married wasn't such a good idea."

It is possible to imagine this whole book told in Lichtenstein comic-strip paintings. Barthelme's characters are flat, deliberately two-dimensional, conventional rather than individual, engaged in a banal present. They have no sentiment or past history, and their future cannot be imagined.

The bursts of dialogue could fit nicely into the bubbles that serve as quotation marks in comics. Everyone appears close-up, outlined, in the foreground—there is no background. The characters—and their cars—fill the frame. Reading Barthelme is a Day-Glo experience.

There is a whole catalogue of lighting effects in Chroma: sunlight and moonlight; highlights; fierce contrast between laser-brightness and pitch-dark; striped shadows cast by Levolor blinds. People squint out into the street, and a guy named Ray feels that "Miami Vice" "devalues light."

Like works of Pop Art, these stones are full of brands: Armor-All, Baby Ruth, Cyclone fences, Exxon stations, Danskin, Money and Spin magazines, Pentel, Pez, Pine-Sol, Plexiglas…. I could, as Barthelme might say, go on. The point is that we are a society transfixed by advertising; capitalists who are what we buy, stamped with the cachet we can afford.

The brand names lend themselves to games of fantasy and satire. In the middle of the night, a woman who must have as many arms as Shiva brings succor from her bathroom: "a Sucrets, three aspirin, a glass of salt water, a heating pad, a jar of Vicks VapoRub, two Rolaids, a tablespoon of Gelusil, a wet washcloth…." When, in the middle of another night—hardly anyone in this book gets enough sleep—a man stops in "at an off-brand all-night market" for "some liquid refreshment in a sixteen-ounce nonreturnable foam-sleeved bottle," the sudden anonymity is jolting.

Right now, the brand names scintillate on the page. But the effect won't last. What is a D. & H. Red? To quote an S. E. Hinton title, "That Was Then, This Is Now." There will come a time when no man or woman alive will remember the taste of a Baby Ruth.

Meanwhile, the people in this book are hungry. A wandering brother-in-law requests "that chicken thing you do, know the one I'm talking about?" A couple go back to Sears for forgotten popcorn. (Sears is out of popcorn.) A woman driver pulls off the road at a Dairy Queen and says, "Let's get some, want to?" Another woman, looking terrific in the front passenger seat of her husband's lowrider, has a sudden craving for tamales. A gorgeous young wife, discussing her infidelity from the depths of a bubble bath, volunteers to make a cheese ball. "I am dying for cheeseball."

It seems unlikely that this hunger will be assuaged. Life lived on one plane results in nihilism, the sort of emptiness that prompts Peggy Lee to wonder, "Is That All There Is?" Transition between the arts looks easy but isn't. In a strange way, Barthelme's situation is vice versa that of a narrative painter. In that genre of painted emotion, the danger was cloying sweetness. Here it is polyvinyl slickness. In both schools, the art describes the times but cannot transcend them.

Francine Prose (review date 13 November 1988)

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SOURCE: "Each Man Hates the Woman He Loves," in New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1988, p. 9.

[In the following review, Prose lauds Barthelme's Two against One for its "commitment to plumbing the depths of male ambivalence and sexual confusion."]

For an alleged minimalist, Frederick Barthelme has always displayed a hearty appetite for the luminous and the extravagant, a faith in the power of serendipity to transform the anesthetized life. His disaffected characters drift through their New South condo complexes, the Hockneyesque poolscapes he has staked out as his turf, their responses so disconnected and elliptical that astonishment has ample room to sneak into the spaces between.

In "Driver," my favorite of his short stories, a young man trades his Toyota for a customized "low rider" decorated with an image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a pack of wolves; in "Gila Flambe," a man goes to one of those ersatz tropical restaurants that seem perpetually ready to take Sidney Greenstreet's reservation, and wanders into the middle of some very odd strangers' lives.

What's striking about Frederick Barthelme's third novel, Two against One, is how rare these light-filled moments are; to say that is not to criticize the book but simply to observe how his palette has darkened, how his sense of possibility seems drastically to have diminished. His loopy humor and trenchant social observation are still very much in evidence. Yet Two against One is by far the most powerful, disturbing and interior of Mr. Barthelme's fictions, inviting us to be flies on the wall of a particularly shadowy and unwelcoming corner of its hero's psyche.

As the novel begins, Edward Lasco—who is celebrating his 40th birthday by "debating with himself the advisability of ordering, from an outfit in California, a complete, prepackaged, do-it-yourself dual-band satellite dish"—receives an unexpected birthday visit from his wife, Elise. Edward and Elise have been living apart for six months, experimenting dispiritedly with what one of their friends calls a "trial sep."

It soon becomes apparent that the rift between them is deeper, more slippery and less hopeful of easy repair than "trial sep" might imply. They are bound by 20 shared years and by what, from moment to moment, seems convincingly like love. Yet there is also hatred, contempt and, most damagingly, Edward's lack of sexual desire for his wife, a near revulsion compounded of irritation, guilt and personal history, of the "things they had done together—arguments, and talk, caring, her needs and his, all the ideas, the moments of heartbreak and hatred, all the opinions, all the fights, all the affections." The result is a complicated and apparently terminal distaste for what Edward experiences as Elise's "her-ness," the smallest manifestations of her psychic and sexual self: "He didn't like her voice sometimes, the way she sounded when she was talking, smoking. The shrillness of it. The artificial excitement. The giggling…. He'd spent some time looking at her skin, and little bits of bra. He thought it was tacky when other women let their underclothes show … but the same tiny indiscretion in Elise made him loathe her, made him think her tasteless, sloppy, unfit."

Fans of Frederick Barthelme's two previous novels—Second Marriage and Tracer—will not be entirely surprised when this knot works itself into a love triangle. Actually, Two against One includes several intersecting triangles, though the only remotely threatening one connects Edward and Elise and Elise's sometime lover, Roscoe. In the earlier novels such triads were at least partly the result of mischievous and unruly desire, but mischief—and desire—are at a premium here, and it has never been more heartbreakingly transparent that all this romantic geometry is just a symptom of something gone wrong.

As should be clear by now, the combative note and the bad odds of the novel's title refer to the sex war waged unceasingly in its pages. In its determination to pare away the layers of irony, casual self-deception and bravado that obscure the reality of modern marriage, Two against One is intermittently shocking and admirably brave. And—at least for this female reader—the book is charged throughout with the voyeuristic fascination of a report from behind enemy lines. Without psychologizing or overstepping the boundaries of its witty fictional world, the novel confronts areas of male sexuality—fear and distrust of women, the compulsion to separate sex from love, to have what Mr. Barthelme calls "the body without the head," and even a certain dislike for the messiness of sex itself—that have rarely been written about so honestly, not for fear of alarming women (when has that ever been a limiting factor?) but because of the challenge these issues pose to men's sense of themselves and to our traditional notions of manhood.

What keeps the novel itself from sounding (consciously or unconsciously) misogynistic is its high degree of awareness. Unlike writers who unthinkingly endorse their heroes' worst prejudices and appear to take it as a given that women truly are loathsome because, at unguarded moments, they let scraps of underwear show, Mr. Barthelme monitors Edward's squeamishness and seems, like Edward, tormented by its implications. Unlike novels in which heroes with marital troubles still manage to have a rollicking good time, Two against One is so suffused with loneliness and angst that some sections—most notably, a long scene in which Edward and Elise discuss the reasons she left—are almost unbearably painful to read.

There are some unsteady touches. The portrayal of a rather mulish self-styled feminist feels a bit weighted and suspect. A scene of erotic and quasi-ritualistic closeness between Elise and a woman named Kinta makes reality sound like a worst-case male-paranoid fantasy of female bonding and exclusivity. Nonetheless, it's impressive how—given its risky subject matter—the novel elicits our compassion and dismay, rather than our anger.

Like so much of Mr. Barthelme's fiction, Two against One is exceptionally readable—funny, deft and engaging. Yet in this book the bizarre, serendipitous moments have been replaced by moments of insight, by a greater commitment to plumbing the depths of male ambivalence and sexual confusion, which Mr. Barthelme has skated on the surface of for so long. At one point Edward says to Elise, "Some of the stuff we did wasn't pretty." The same. I suppose, could be said for what is revealed in these pages. Frederick Barthelme's portrait of the mid-life late-20th-century American married man is not, as they say, a pretty picture, but rather a strong, unsparing one. Reading it, we keep asking: Has it really come to this? Are men and women really so at odds? This is very much a novel for these unsettling times, when we are learning to recognize the truth by how deeply we long to disbelieve it.

Lem Coley (review date May 1990)

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SOURCE: "So Timely and So Different," in American Book Review, May, 1990, pp. 20-1.

[In the following excerpt, Coley discusses how Barthelme's Two against One departs from his previous work.]

Frederick Barthelme's usual setup—Gulf Coast, passive white male protagonist recently uncoupled from his better half—needs no introduction. But Two against One is a departure. While the elements are the same, Barthelme has traded in the polished, elliptical play of surfaces that made his reputation. The new look? Long paragraphs of analysis and exposition. In Two against One he has pushed himself to go inside his characters at whatever the cost, and the cost is high.

Time was, heroic writers worked their way into the depths to find images of mythic power. Barthelme comes around the final bend to discover a big neon VACANCY sign blinking on and off. Here's Elise, estranged wife of the passive white male protagonist (PWMP), describing Edward, the PWMP, to himself—and they aren't having a fight, the emotional tone is cool—"I mean, you're a nice guy, and all that, you're an interesting problem, but you're not exactly man of the year. You're a little bit anal, right? And you're not a big romantic. I mean, you give new meaning to the concept of room temperature." That 'little bit anal' is what they used to call litotes. Roscoe, a man Elise wants to be the third leg in a semiplatonic threesome with Edward, makes Edward look like Steerforth. The women are Barthelme's usual quirky, fey types and are the agents who move the story. They're cute but lightweight.

I admire his guts. Before hitting forty-five, Barthelme was successful in both senses of the term: he was getting over, and he was producing distinctive, well-made fiction that worked a significant vein of contemporary experience. Here he tries to move beyond what he has done and achieve something more difficult. Merely to present those important phenomena the empty personality and the make-bit-up-as-you-go-along relationship is one thing; to wrestle with them, confront them in fiction, is another.

In a bitter outburst Edward asks if he should feel inadequate because he doesn't "bust some guy's ass in a business deal, then take a whiskey into the yard and have deep thoughts about America?" Rather, what he likes is "to walk from one room to another, mess around in that room for a while, walk back to the room I came out of, rest a while, then walk into a third room and get a Nestle's Crunch ice cream bar and sit down on the couch for a minute, then go in the bathroom and wash my face, then read a magazine—Consumer Reports is good…." Ouch.

Now Barthelme doesn't really think that's all there is to Edward. In the lengthy monologues and dialogues about Edward, Elise, why they split up, why they only made love three times in their final year together, what they should do now, Edward reveals a frozen soul. But that takes us into the land of pop psychology, of how-you-say low self-esteem, blocked anger. That territory has been pretty well picked over. Not much left for the writer there.

Many readers find relationships fascinating—a magazine of that name probably exists already—but for the life of me I can't see what difference it makes whether Edward and Elise get back together or not. Nothing is at stake: no children, no property, no common cause. Where I live hardly a week goes by that a man doesn't shoot his estranged wife and often himself as well. The failure of those relationships made a difference. Edward and Elise will just drift on down the river of time either way—a problem they themselves are aware of.

As is Barthelme. In the November 3, 1988 New York Times Book Review he had a lucid, important essay called "On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Beans." It explains where he's coming from. It says things like "Events are witnessed, not experienced." Or "People don't froth as much in life as they do in realist fiction." In a brilliant bit of sarcasm it argues that the current incarnation of something like War and Peace is CNN.

Well, I dunno. You see his point. I just read Madison Smartt Bell's Soldier's Joy, which wants to merge with history, and for all its good prose, good intentions, its heart seems synthetic—a bionic book.

And yet, failure to feel history on the nerve ends is one reason folks who go from suburbs to writing programs to teaching jobs will not write like William Burroughs, Nadine Gordimer, or Toni Morrison. Reading Barthelme's essay I thought of Gyorgy Lukács, who says somewhere that yes, Balzac is melodramatic but history is melodramatic. Barthelme grew up in Texas. When he was twenty, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby made the headlines and a governor of Texas was shot most melodramatically. Maybe history is too tough to compete with. What novelist could invent a character as rich, sad, strange, and central to the century as Lee Harvey Oswald?…

Richard Eder (review date 19 August 1990)

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SOURCE: "Minimalist at Mid-Life," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 19, 1990, pp. 3, 8.

[In the following review, Eder discusses the minimalism of Barthelme's Natural Selection.]

Our minimalist fiction writers, chroniclers of the young urban and suburban middle classes, use deflection to write of their fears and passions. Often ingeniously—some of our best writers are minimalists—they suggest the emotions by muting them: heat by coolness; outcry by silence. It is the silence of Sherlock Holmes' celebrated dog that does not bark.

What would a minimalist dog sound like if it did bark? Frederick Barthelme, whose collection of short stories, Moon Deluxe, was a nearly perfect minimalist work, has made a fascinating and often moving attempt to find out.

Natural Selection is rich in the oblique ironies and the broken-field talking and thinking that we have come to expect of Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Mary Robison, the late Raymond Carver and so many others, but there is a rupture right down the middle. The skin of control is broken. Awkwardly—Barthelme himself can be awkward attempting it—his characters are turned to stare their anguish in the face instead of in smoked and angled mirrors.

A dozen years ago, Peter and Lily were singles. They lived outside Houston in rented poolside apartments with shag rugs and flimsy plasterboard ceilings. They drove to malls and fern bars and went at 11 p.m. for waffles or beer. Now they are married, have good jobs, an 11-year-old son, Charles—as knowing and rueful-witty as his parents—and a suburban house.

It is a tract house, with barbecue, garden shed and wood deck. But as Peter, the narrator, tells us: "The yard has worn patches you recognize…. And the deck looks as old as you are, you don't mind sitting on it."

It is, right at the start, one of those seeded sentences that hint at the transition the book is set in, and the transformations that lie ahead. Minimalist couple glimpse middle-age, and beyond that, growing old and dying.

There are no minimalist deaths; they are all the same size. The recognition and acceptance of time passing requires a wrenching alteration of the language we use for our lives. Natural Selection is about Peter's painful struggle to learn that alteration.

The book takes place in Peter's early mid-life crisis, with excursions into the past when life and love were easily taken on, and disposed of. Peter is restless, bored, rebellious. Lily and Charles are too precious to be disposed of; realizing this, he realizes he cannot dispose of himself; he feels imprisoned and desperate.

The desperation sways in a balance of acute detail and comedy that sometimes recalls Updike in his suburban period, and sometimes, when Peter's comic soliloquy goes wild, Peter De Vries. The narrator jokes blackly with Lily and Charles and they gamely joke back, but something serious is going on.

The husband and father keeps up a litany of gallows-humor rant about the state of the world and the foolishnesses and conformities of American living. When a man does that, at some point his wife and child will get a different message: Are you angry at us? Fed up? Leaving?

Peter, in fact, is on the borderline of a breakdown, signaled when his intellectual rough-and-tumble with Charles edges past joking into a moment or two of real cruelty. He is not a cruel man; he is a decent man riding on the edge of trouble.

He moves tentatively out of the house, returning every day. To have taken that bit of action clarifies things for him; he is freer to own attachment to his life and to his family. He moves back, not quite as tentatively as he moved out; he may be OK. And then life, perhaps fed up with being learned so tardily and for such low, easy tuition, takes a tragic swipe at him.

It is tempting to spell out the tragedy. It would allow me to give an idea of the distance Barthelme is covering in his own evolution. I will only say that the last 20 pages of this brief but spacious book contain a tautly building horror, followed by a cry of despair and regret as powerful as it is astonishing.

I have stressed theme and form at the expense of detail; if Barthelme is breaking his own new ground with the first two, he is on beautifully cultivated home ground with the last.

Peter's and Lily's first date, in flashback, is a comical minimalist tour de force. Each pokes a tentative turtle head out of a protective shell; each says zingy things and apologizes for them. He suggests a movie: "I probably can't be boring in a movie." She hates people who say they're boring, she tells him, and soon she is floundering too. "I do this. I need a verbal skill. Just one: Jesus."

Somehow they get to his apartment; she has cleverly arranged for each to take a car so it will work out. Somehow they not only have sex but, without quite admitting it, they make love. The moment of truth comes in the morning when she has carefully arranged breakfast and is self-conscious about it.

"It was delicious," he says. Turtle head retracts: Has he sounded patronizing? "I mean, I meant it was delicious but I didn't mean the other part—you know what I'm talking about?" "The repellent part?" she asks. He knows they must grow old together.

That is no ending, of course, but a beginning; and it is the battle to grow old that Peter is fighting with himself 10 years later. Barthelme's comedy of detail rarely wavers, but it goes deep until, without apparent transition, we are touched.

He manages to suggest, subtly but without deflections, the pain that Peter's life-crisis is causing. His portrait of the 10-year-old Charles gamely trying to play along with his father's moods while keeping his own independence are funny and moving. Even more remarkable is what he does with Lily.

Wonderfully well-voiced, she is fighting not altogether consciously to bring Peter into life. She will try anything: irony, sympathy, argument. She will even become him; at one point, she takes up his angry commentary on the state of the world and out-despairs him.

She will even dream for him; it is one of the best fictional dreams in a long time. It is a gathering of philosophers who argue by changing their pants. One dons a green pair; another studies it, reflects, and counters by putting on plaid. It is a rejoinder to Peter's despairing vision of entropy. Lily's vision: "The possibility of good fortune."

Not quite everything works. The last 20 pages are breathtaking, but it is not quite the same breath we have been breathing up to then. Thematically, the shift is justified, but fictionally, though not unprepared, it makes the gears complain.

The main difficulty occurs, now and then, with Peter. His reflections about the state of the world and his own state represent, of course, the minimalist's breakthrough. He is confronting, not evading. But these soliloquies are exceedingly rounded and complete. They can suggest Layman's Sunday in church. The sermon, worked on so hard, is more brilliant than the minister's own average effort, but it fights the occasion a little.

Barthelme's battle with his own literary occasion has these roughnesses. No battle is ever tidy. Some, such as this one, are supremely worthwhile.

Amy Hempel (review date 19 August 1990)

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SOURCE: "A Hard Life for the Non-poor," in New York Times Book Review, August 19, 1990, p. 13.

[In the following review, Hempel asserts that "if Mr. Barthelme has not here beat his own best time, Natural Selection is still a natural progression from the novels that came before."]

Since the appearance in 1983 of Moon Deluxe, Frederick Barthelme's remarkable first collection of stories, one of the constants in his highly praised fiction has been his dead-on presentation of suburban life, of an apartment-complex and mall culture where, as the Holiday Inn slogan puts it, "the best surprise is no surprise." Another constant has been a quality of fast, fresh exchange that makes the dialogue in so many other novels and stories sound like—dialogue. In addition, there has been a tendency for Mr. Barthelme's estranged and self-mockingly "modern" couples to turn into triangles: husband, former wife and former wife's sister (Tracer); husband, wife and wife's boyfriend (Two against One); husband, wife and husband's first wife (Second Marriage). On television, these folks would star in "I Love Loosely."

In Natural Selection, Mr. Barthelme's fourth novel, Peter and Lily Wexler's marriage is more the casualty than the cause of their problems—or, more specifically, of his problems. Peter is a 40-year-old fellow who works in "facilitation consulting" and lives in Lazy Lakes, a lakeless subdivision of Houston, not so far from "the new wish-I-was-designed-by-a-famous-architectconvention center." He's the kind of guy who instinctively finds flaws and, as befits a Barthelme character, is characteristically witty about his disillusionment.

Peter's complaints are all-encompassing—"no less real for being middle-class"—and are inspired by everything from unscrupulous politicians to his 15-year practice of correcting the spelling in his wife's shopping lists (never in all that time, he notes, has she spelled "raisin" correctly). Still, he's got to wonder whether he's entitled to these laments. According to the news media, Peter tells us, people like him have "no business being angry. Genuine anger was the province of poor, ignorant, violent people … people driven by the elemental. Only poverty, cruelty, and abuse earned the large emotions…. Embarrassed by our collective good fortune, the journalists redefined authenticity as the kingdom of the raw." This, Peter adds, makes it "a hard life for the non-poor." "Yeah, you've got it rough," his wife says to him. "Tote that bale." Yet she says she'll wait it out. "Flail away," she tells him.

Thinking that the absence of someone to complain to might slow him down, Peter leaves Lily and their baffled son, Charles, a nearly-10-year-old who is thinking of changing his name to Laramie, and moves into another house in another subdivision 10 miles away—this after an "odd, tough, quick talk" in which he tells his wife he is "tired in a new way." "This isn't about disaffection or disconnection or dysfunction," he informs her, "it's about hiding." Off alone in his new house, he has "no goal except to be more easygoing, to let stuff roll off my back more readily; in the meantime I was going private."

In Natural Selection, Mr. Barthelme has once again given us people who are staying together but living apart. Here, though, the extramarital doings are incidental; in the course of the separation, Peter has a brief interlude with the former wife of his brother-in-law, Ray, whom he has earlier described as "the bad brother, given to jumbo concepts and get-garish-quick schemes untainted by the reek of success; I liked him."

Peter tempts fate at one point—and his feelings are echoed by his wife—when he allows that things would be simpler, more obvious and less confusing, if something really awful happened. "When things start to look O.K.," he says, "the problems get intricate and insidious." In the meantime, in a macabre kind of bonding, Peter spends some quality time with his son composing a make-believe suicide note. Charles's advice is to make it gruesome. Peter then tries out a gory, excessive version on the boy. "Way to go, Dad" is his son's response.

There is no one thing, no epiphany, that signals to Peter that reconciliation with Lily is really the way to go. But suddenly he finds that he no longer needs to point out the rampant bad behavior he sees in every direction. "I figured other people learned this at sixteen," he thinks, "but for me it was a breakthrough at forty."

Why, then, did this storm of fault-finding come and go? "Who knew?" says Peter. Maybe this, maybe that. Which, if vague, is at least true to life.

Natural Selection is not as funny or full as Second Marriage, nor as odd as Tracer. It does not have the interior complexity of Two against One. But if Mr. Barthelme has not here beat his own best time, Natural Selection is still a natural progression from the novels that came before. Sure we continue to be disillusioned and dispirited. But the shocker of the ending to this latest book serves as an old-fashioned moral. Maybe, Mr. Barthelme seems to say, we don't know how good we've got it. Maybe we had better buckle down.

Janet Burroway (review date 10 October 1993)

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SOURCE: "Whatever Happens, Happens," in New York Times Book Review, October 10, 1993, pp. 14-15.

[In the following review, Burroway discusses the arbitrary world of Barthelme's The Brothers.]

There are by now two full generations of Hemingway progeny. The first—exemplified by James Dickey. Harry Crews and Barry Hannah—has stayed in the wild, testing death, alert to betrayal and the bizarre cruelties of nature. The grandsons are more domesticated, likely to live in suburbia. They are nevertheless tough and soft in the same places. Their characters are almost honorable and never quite defeated; they take the strange in stride, and get on in spite of pain; they talk plain, a signal of their sincerity; they need women, and are baffled by their need. Among the grandsons are Richard Ford, whose characters' bafflement is a style in itself, and Tim O'Brien, who sends the innocents off to war in a prose that swings artfully between parody and homage.

Frederick Barthelme is also of this breed, though he brings his characters and their dogged heroism into a world more arbitrary than alienated (divorce is the dark continent), a place of amiable junk and dangers emerging out of left field, through which they mosey, talking hipster Huck.

In his novel Tracer, a recently divorced man goes to the Gulf Coast of Florida and fools around with the sister of his ex-wife. In Mr. Barthelme's fine and funny new novel, The Brothers, a recently divorced man goes to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and fools around with the wife of his brother. Neither affair turns out too well, but the pattern of lust, recrimination and acceptance has a kind of haphazard authenticity for both the reader and the parties concerned. Haphazard is the operative word.

Del Tribute arrives in Biloxi in a 16-foot Ryder rent-a-truck because his former father-in-law has given him a condo as a consolation prize. Del's brother, Bud, lives in Biloxi, teaching college in a desultory sort of way; but at the moment he is in California chasing some phantasm of a film career, and the condo is occupied, so Del settles in for the duration with his sister-in-law, Margaret. The two are mutually attracted; they touch and retreat, approach and avoid, don't quite avoid—a 1950's-style tease fest on the sofa. They aren't sure whether they are doing something wrong or even something likely to cause trouble.

Eventually, Bud comes home, the tenant moves out, Del moves in to the condo and takes up with Jen, a sexy fellow drifter young enough to make him feel his age, which is 44 going on 50. Jen is satiny and sassy. She puts out a Day-Glo news bulletin of the goriest stories she can find on her nifty worldwide computer setup. She does stranglers, shot moms, barbecued dogs, detached thumbs, kittens in Ziploc freezer bags. She can't settle on a name for the magazine, which title-surfs from Blood & Slime Weekly to Organ Meats to Warm Digits, but she understands perfectly well why she publishes it. The stories are "easy to follow, easy to understand. You don't get lost, and you don't have to worry about what things mean all the time."

For Del and Jen and Bud and Margaret, things go O.K.; things go along. The problem is that there's just no telling when Jen or, more threateningly, Bud will stir up the uncertain murk of that quasi-incestuous fooling around. You can't tell if it matters, or if the trouble it caused is over with, or if it ever will be. You have to keep worrying about what it means all the time.

Images of drift, passivity and choicelessness pervade every page and even the most violent events of The Brothers. We know very little about the marriage that broke up before the novel began, only that Del thinks of it as "still out there, circling in space but lost to the participants." Nor are we allowed to know the aftermath, immediate or eventual, of the novel's last scene, which balances between the awful and nothing much. The characters know that danger is of the wayward kind: "I'd be afraid to have a gun," Margaret says. "How would you stop yourself from playing with it all the time, pointing it out the window at passers-by and stuff?"

In the meantime things are organized on a principle, as Margaret observes, of "Anarchy Lite." Del works as an electronics salesman, and might or might not give it up. He does a stint as factotum for a college retreat, and might or might not get into teaching something or other (the course on rock video, baseball and Madonna is already taken). He encounters "a young person with a life stretching out in front of her like so many unrented videos," and a priest or former priest who confesses: "I don't actually pay attention; I try to figure what I'm supposed to say. Then I say that."

In a marvelous (surely deliberate) glance back to Papa, Mr. Barthelme makes his characters pay a lot of attention to food, worrying about whether the beer is Grolsch or Stelzig's Wheat, pondering a hot dog, proposing a toast at some crisis point, fixing burgers to settle things down, being unable to get through the night without Vienna sausage.

Hinduism holds that a sacred object may be tin or tinsel; it doesn't matter, the point is that it's sacred. The Brothers conveys something of that sense and is an only partly ironic paean to tack and flotsam, the tchotchkes of American enterprise.

"Why are you so worried about phony?" Bud asks at one point. "There's nothing wrong with phony stuff; it's just more stuff."

Mr. Barthelme's eloquence is hard to pin down because it is disguised as boy talk, soaring imagery undercut by two kinds of dumb. He gives us a crew of college-prof beach bums, mouthy modem innocents; and his hero, Del, stands at the wet edge of the world with an exact eye and the syntax of the mall. The effect is wonderful, simultaneously vivid and bewildering.

I once heard Carol Bly inveigh against the kind of metaphor that diminishes the natural world by comparison to manufactured things. But for Frederick Barthelme this is the real world, reconstituted, regurgitated and gorgeous. Pelicans drop like daggers into a gunmetal gray sea. A beautiful woman looks like a catalogue, a man is an enormous Q-Tip.

Del, the more spiritual of the brothers, struggles through our trashed and plastic language to express the fundamental cry of art: "It's just this breathtaking world, that's the point. It's like the story's not important—what's important is the way the world looks. That's what makes you feel the stuff."

David Shields (review date 2 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "A Breathtaking World," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 2, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following review, Shields complains that Barthelme's The Brothers lacks some of the virtues of his earlier work, but asserts that this novel "offers the new and genuine pleasure of seeing a Barthelme protagonist tantalizingly close to celebrating the world."]

It is often said, with some justification, that most novelists have, finally, only one story to tell and that, in book after book, they ring endless changes on a single essential narrative. Over the last 10 years, Frederick Barthelme has been exploring—with escalating precision, wit and emotional power—the same material (marriage, divorce, middle-aged male ennui), the same territory (Southern suburbia) and similar characters (over-educated protagonists in dead-end jobs and their wry, weary wives, ex-wives and sassy young girlfriends.

Barthelme's new novel, The Brothers, his seventh book, is told from the astringent point-of-view of Del Tribute, who moves from Houston "to Biloxi because he'd been given a condominium, outright, by his ex-wife's rich father, a going-away present. It was less than a month since the divorce papers were final." When he arrives in Biloxi, Del discovers that his brother, Bud, has left to pursue an exceedingly vague "movie thing" in Los Angeles. Waiting for the tenant of his condominium to move out, Del stays with and comes perilously close to falling in love with Bud's wife, Margaret.

The real romance of the novel, though, is between Del, a 44-year-old stereo salesman, and Jen, a 24-year-old exhibitionist and satirist who surfs Compuserv for mordant wire service stories for "Blood & Slime Weekly," her one-page "Hi-Speed Terrorzine" that she posts around town. Jen is a wonderfully spirited and funny character. In her combination of youth, beauty, sensuality and intelligence she sometimes seems a little too perfect, less a person than a fantasy figure: "She was a soldier in no army, bought no belief system but her own."

When Bud returns from Los Angeles, he and Del and Margaret and even Jen make much ado throughout the rest of the novel about Del's earlier flirtation with Margaret. This proves to be something of a MacGuffin, as the issue is never really explored or resolved but instead only sporadically reiterated, and The Brothers is not best read as a thoroughgoing examination of a relationship between two brothers. To the extent that this book is about sibling rivalry, though, it defines that rivalry in starkly Darwinian terms: Del's ascent is Bud's descent. The final image of the book is of Bud, gone slightly mad, "swinging left and right, rocking back and forth, his sheet-wrapped head bobbing like an enormous Q-Tip against the little black sky."

As Del says toward the end of the book, speaking to Jen about the weird wire service articles she culls but referring indirectly to the novel's apparent aesthetic: "There isn't any story. It's not the story. It's just this breathtaking world, that's the point. It's like the story's not important—what's important is the way the world looks. That's what makes you feel the stuff. That's what puts you there."

The novel's true subject is Del's attempt to reclaim his presence in the world by seeing it as breathtaking, as beautiful. In the opening paragraph, "[i]t'd quit raining, and the sunlight was glittery as he crossed the bridge over the bay, but his fellow travelers didn't seem to notice the light." When Del and Jen are at the Singing River Mall, "Del thought it was beautiful. 'Nobody really gets this,' he said. 'Nobody sees how gorgeous this is or knows why.'" At another point, Del says about storms that "[t]hey transform everything instantly. It's like suddenly you're in a different world and the junk of your life slides away and you're left with this rapture, this swoon of well-being and rightness. You get the world in its amazing balance."

This swoon of well-being and rightness—the world in its amazing balance—is what Barthelme's protagonists, from his debut story collection, Moon Deluxe, to his most recent novel, Natural Selection, have explicitly been seeking. Del, like the protagonist of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter—to which this book bears a slight resemblance—believes that he can be content if he can learn to skate lightly on the surface of things. When he waxes self-righteously philosophical, Jen, his instructor in the ineluctable modality of the visible, teases him back to reality: "Whoa. It's Deepman. Deepman in the window."

Although Del remains somewhat prone—as do so many of Barthelme's protagonists—to curmudgeonly media critiques and Rush Limbaugh-like pinnings for the way things once were and are supposed to be, the Jen-cure, in general, takes. The final two chapters offer an instructive contrast between Del and Bud. Bud defines his own mini-breakdown in terms of the fact that he can no longer respond to "the scent of [a woman] as she passes you in an aisle, the light trace of her skirt grazing your thigh, or her blouse on your forearm as you reach for a magazine."

For this reader, a passionate Barthelme fan, The Brothers lacks Moon Deluxe's verbal and psychic pyrotechnics, Two against One's emotional rigor, Natural Selection's structural perfection. Here, the protagonist's yearnings are granted more than explored. Perhaps familiar chords are getting struck too routinely. Nevertheless, The Brothers offers the new and genuine pleasure of seeing a Barthelme protagonist tantalizingly close to celebrating the world. Never has the world, in a Barthelme novel, looked so lovely, more worth celebrating. By the end of the book, "[i]t was one of those nights when the air is like a glove exactly the shape of your body."

Timothy Peters (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: "'80s Pastoral: Frederick Barthelme's Moon Deluxe Ten Years On," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 175-86.

[In the following essay, Peters argues that Barthelme's best contribution is his direct "confrontation of the contemporary American landscape, the terrain of retail and residential sprawl associated with shopping malls, fast food outlets, tract housing, and television."]

The suburban dreamscape through which Frederick Barthelme's characters shuffle in Moon Deluxe, his 1983 debut collection of short stories, now seems as innocent as that lost America of Nabokov's Lolita. The comparison is not altogether gratuitous: many of Barthelme's stories involve relationships between older men and young girls or much younger women. Erika Landson, the beautiful 25-year-old restaurateur of "Gila Flambé," tells the narrator that when she married the rich, middle-aged oddball Warren Pelham, she had been in love with him "since I was a kid." "Feeders" offers the creepy Cecil Putnam, at once both anxious father and discarded lover: "That's my baby girl you got upstairs." the fiftyish Putnam tells her landlord. In "Grapette," Barthelme's standard late-thirty-something narrator spends the evening with a young lady named Carmel whose parents, Margaret and Herman, have just given her a new Peugeot for her seventeenth birthday:

When she was thirteen and I was thirty-three, we had a little romance. Margaret and Merman wrote it off as a crush, but I wasn't so sure. Carmel looked twenty then; I took her to galleries and movies, and we slept together. One of Margaret's therapist friends wondered if it was such a good idea to encourage this; I told Herman that it was wearing on me, too.

Humbert Humbert's claim in Lolita that "the old link between the adult world and the child world has been completely severed nowadays by new customs and new laws" finds ample support in the world of Barthelme's stories, though children make infrequent appearances. More often, his narrators justify the view, popular with American women, that American men are themselves just little boys. Henry Pfeister, the narrator of "Box Step," wears mismatched socks and plays repeatedly with a plastic toy dinosaur he has just purchased: at home, in the presence of his sister and of his co-worker Anne (who is also his emerging love interest), he fills the hollow toy with won ton soup and proceeds to spill it all over the table. Later, over what should be an intimate dinner, Henry presents Anne with, not a ring or a rose, but another toy dinosaur. Similarly, the voyeur-narrator of "Shopgirls," like the deviant Humbert, is childlike in his very obsessiveness, and the dreamy, hypnotic tone of the narrative owes much to Humbert's own perverse lyricism. Readers who recall the latter's clothes-shopping spree in Parkington following the death of Charlotte Haze should be able to recognize the "you" of "Shopgirls" as a literary descendant of Nabokov's nympholept:

You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent at the neck of her blouse opens slightly—she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, tan, and greatly freckled; she wears a dark-blue V-neck blouse without a collar, and her skirt is white cotton, calf length, slit up the right side to a point just beneath her thigh. Her hair, a soft blond, is pulled straight and close to the scalp, woven at the back into a single thick strand. In the fluorescent light of the display cabinet her eye shadow shines.

Although his stories are often viewed as wry depictions of looking for love in all the wrong places, it is not the "Lolita" theme as such that I wish to pursue in Barthelme. Rather, I want to argue that the real contribution of his first and best book is its direct confrontation of the contemporary American landscape, the terrain of retail and residential sprawl associated with shopping malls, fast-food outlets, tract housing, and television. My argument takes issue with the point of view typified by John W. Aldridge's recent attack on what he calls "assembly-line-fiction," the authors of which:

seem remarkably oblivious to the realities of social context and physical milieu in general. They do not indicate in their work that they are aware of the ugliness and vapidity of the contemporary urban and suburban environment. They take no critical attitude toward it. It does not provoke them to raise qualitative questions about it—like those, for example, that Mailer, Vonnegut, Gaddis, Pynchon, and Heller have all been provoked to raise—but as is the case with their response to social issues, they appear to perceive it, if at all, as an abstraction or as an entirely neutral medium, as natural and as invisible as the air they breathe. In the K-Mart fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason and Frederick Barthelme—to take notable instances—the environment typified by the K-Mart is not evaluated as the sleazy and soul-deadening thing it is. It is treated simply as a blank space where the action occurs, as a featureless corridor through which the characters move in their unimpeded progress toward inconsequence.

What is implicit here is that only one response to this physical environment is morally possible: an attack upon it as "ugly," "sleazy and soul-deadening." Aldridge in effect faults Barthelme and Mason for not being satirists, like Don DeLillo who "quite deliberately addresses the more ludicrous and cliched features of contemporary life through comic exaggeration inflates them into prime objects of satire." He goes on to describe this environment as:

open, bland, uniform, monotonous, and at the same time smoothly functional and accommodative like that of a modern housing development or shopping mall. All one can do with either, besides living badly in it, is find it too dull and depressing to be noticed. If a person has grown up in a development and shopped his whole life in a mall—and in this country over the last thirty years a child of the middle classes could scarcely have avoided that calamity—it would not be surprising if his sensibilities were as atrophied as the optic nerves of fish spawned for centuries in caves.

For the literary righteous, the K-Mart environment is an easy target: to find it either "too depressing to be noticed" or worthy only of satire constitutes a failure of the moral imagination. It is also impractical: this environment is not going to go away, and few Americans have the wherewithal to move to or make a more aesthetically satisfying one. Perhaps the question becomes that of Robert Frost's Oven Bird: "what to make of a diminished thing."

Critics such as Aldridge and the reviewer of Moon Deluxe for Studies in Short Fiction, Peter LaSalle, reprimand the New Yorker school of fiction for drearily reproducing a name-brand existence devoid of event or principle. Such a view is inadequate to the textures of Moon Deluxe. For example, neither Aldridge nor Peter LaSalle comments on the setting for Barthelme's stories: the South—Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile. Surely, the failure of these stories to conform in any way to common expectations of Southern writing is significant, mischievously so, like Richard Ford's praise of Detroit and New Jersey in The Sportswriter. Indeed, the demographics of Moon Deluxe illustrate just how stylized these settings are: there are, for instance, more African Americans in Woody Allen films than in Barthelme's South. Nor are there Jews, Hispanics, or, for that matter, Episcopalians. He does not exclude minorities from his stories so much as exclude racial, ethnic, or religious consciousness at all. Only an occasional Chinese waiter disturbs the relentless whiteness—or rather, blankness—of his characters, even when they are named, as in the eponymous story, "The Browns." Otherwise, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and gay men are absent, though not, interestingly enough, gay women.

Nor are we ever sure what Barthelme's characters do for a living. Where Jerzy Kosinski's protagonists, like Henry James's, are conveniently rich, Barthelme's narrators have the next best thing to wealth: an office job in America, circa 1981. We rarely know, however, what the company does, or what the narrator's job title is, his salary, qualifications, college, or anything. The office gives him the freedom to come and go more or less at will without the pressing need to accomplish anything particular. Virtually our first image in the book is of Henry Pfeister's feet, in "Box Step," "balanced on the taupe Selectric II." The couple having an affair in "Trip" are both, technically, on a business trip, but Barthelme is too honest to claim the adjective even for his title. They begin their courtship by "having long and wistful and detailed telephone conversations on the company WATS line, talking about everything that they can think of, even business." The neurotic, 30-year-old "Browns" are, respectively, lawyer and architect, but the story exhibits no interest in the skills, training, or imagination required to perform these occupations, and we never learn the occupation of the narrator of "The Browns." On the other hand, Barthelme's characters are not especially worldly: the female roommates of the title story hardly know the difference between cognac and Ripple, nor do they care. Most of his narrators live in large, modern apartment—not condominium—complexes with the kind of pretentious or predictable names that recall the onomastic litanies of Lolita: Casa de Sol, Palm Shadows, Forest Royale, Santa Rosa, and The Creekside. In short, Barthelme's modestly affluent figures must not be mistaken for that infamous '80s animal the yuppie. They have none of the yuppie's careerist drive or manic materialism: they neither work hard nor play hard.

Thus, Barthelme's stories are no more realistic than Kafka's; his Gulf South as much an invention as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county. In this regard, Barthelme parts company from Aldridge's other victim, Bobbie Ann Mason, whose work expresses a painful awareness of the changing landscape of her native Kentucky: farms and fields are jostled by strip malls and condo complexes, while the Eurythmics play in the background. Barthelme eliminates that temporal and spatial perspective, and even the kind of pop culture references to which Mason clings. His landscape is not changing at all. The organizing conceit of his narrative mode is that no other world exists. His suburbs are not juxtaposed against any city: references to Dallas or Mobile or Biloxi serve only to identify a geographic base. We never set foot inside these places. Likewise, farms, fields, and forests make rare appearances. The conceit is, in effect, that the entire country looks like this. It is the sly bravery of that conceit I wish to emphasize, a bravery in treating the one subject, the contemporary American landscape, that postmodern American fiction has largely failed to deal with in any way except that licensed by Aldridge—satirically. And it is here, especially, that the model of Nabokov becomes relevant.

Reading Lolita today, we find that time has only deepened the richness of the parallel its author engineers between Dolores Haze and America, that "lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country," which Humbert admits he only "defiled with a sinuous trail of slime." Nabokov's affectionate if unsentimental picture of postwar American popular and roadside tourist culture affects us today in ways that the reader in 1957 could not have been, in ways that Nabokov himself could not have anticipated. Four decades later, that America can only appear eerily Arcadian. The inventory of ordinary pleasures denied Lolita constitutes a portrait of middle-class American childhood, circa 1948. Subsumed into Humbert's larger account of Truman-era American life, the total picture appears positively quaint to 1990s readers who can forget that their narrator is a child molester. If we itemize what is missing from Lolita's world, we might understand this phenomenon: television, for one thing: as for the world outside, though the endless Komfy Kabins, Pine Manor motels, and dairy bars through which Humbert and his charge pass are meant to embody the vulgar retail landscape of middle-class life, we can only envy the absence of the commercial and cultural uniformity that characterizes our own landscape. There are no Pizza Huts in Nabokov, no McDonalds, no Holiday Inns, no Radio Shacks, no CVSs, no Wai-Marts choking off commerce on Ramsdale's main street, no factory outlets, and no shopping malls. The business establishments in Lolita are independently, if not imaginatively, named, owned, and operated: its Wace, Colorado can support four drugstore cum soda-fountains. Humbert's Parkington shopping spree (see epigraph) would be impossible now in most of the small cities and towns of the US. From Humbert the alien—artist, madman, European—the temples and tenor of middle-class American life elicit an amused if disdainful fascination. His America, unlike his nymphet, is unchanging: his satire takes for granted an American social and physical environment that we spend millions of tax dollars trying to recreate. The poignant thing about the book now is that we are as much aliens in Lolita's America as was the maniacal Humbert.

Such a gap has already opened up between the reader and the America of Moon Deluxe. Again, we need only itemize what is missing from his apartment complex pastoral: crime, AIDS, racism, homelessness, drugs; liquor and cigarettes are almost equally rare, as is rock music, or music of any kind, for that matter. Personal computers, microwaves, and portable phones are starting to turn up, but there is hardly any awareness of the outside world at all—no sense of domestic, environmental, or international crisis. Barthelme has Nabokov's trick of making solipsism seem innocent. The three young engineers from Michigan in "Grapette" can drive, without self-consciousness, new Toyota Celicas, which they keep in pristine condition. In effect, Barthelme's stories depict the period in which the United States was losing its economic primacy to Japan and Germany but before it had realized it was doing so. It is here, if anywhere, that Barthelme's stories possess an implicit satirical thrust. Otherwise, his world seems utterly a-historical. We are never encouraged, as we are with Ann Beattie's, for example, to associate Barthelme's characters with the sixties. We never think of his narrators as former campus activists or ex-hippies, even though, by their ages, they are of just that generation. He even avoids offering details of hair length or dress that might evoke a more specific period. in this sense, Barthelme's world is more like Harold Pinter's than Ann Beattie's or Bobbie Ann Mason's: in his work the 1960s seems as far away as the 1860s.

At the same time, there is something heroic about Barthelme's refusal—and the refusal of his characters—to look back, to be nostalgic, or even to scheme for a more aesthetically or materially rewarding future. No character in Moon Deluxe longs for that restored Victorian or eighteenth-century carriage-house of the yuppie's imaginings; none of them are killing time until they can move to the country. They do not even acknowledge the possibility. Normally, this should suggest a profound deficiency of imagination or moral energy. Even Russell Banks, in defending Barthelme against Aldridge's book, refers to Barthelme's narrators as almost always "unreliable," and compares his characters to William Burroughs's junkies, "drugged by consumerism."

Put simply, either Moon Deluxe's characters are moral deadbeats or Barthelme is. But there is another possibility: Barthelme requires us, if I may cite Nabokov once more, "to learn to discern the delicate beauty ever present in the margin of our undeserving journey." Certainly Ann in "Box Step" tries:

After the movie we stop outside the theatre to look at the coming-attraction posters. It's just beginning to get dark, and the street lights are lime against the pale sky. The store signs have come on, blinking in oranges and blues and bright whites; along Snap Street the cars have amber and red running lights. The parking lot has fresh yellow lines on new blacktop, and off to the right clear bulbs dangle on black wires over Portofino's Fine Used Cars.

"Pretty," she says, looping her arm through mine and pulling us off the curb toward her car.

Aldridge faults the authors of "assembly-line-fiction" for possessing "apparently no sense that they belong to a literary tradition that might prove nourishing," but Barthelme is, I would argue, essentially working in a mode, if not a genre, that goes back to the eighteenth century: that of the urban, or town, eclogue, and its cousin the mock-pastoral. The narrator of "The Browns" mentions, for example, "the kind of movie Hollywood started making in numbers about five or six years ago, in which ordinary life is made fun of and made mysterious and beautiful at the same time." If a bit glib, the formulation could apply as easily to Pope's Dunciad or Swift's "Description of a City Shower" as to "Moon Deluxe" or "Shopgirls." Like Richard Ford, with his rhapsodies on New Jersey in The Sportswriter, Barthelme refuses to be embarrassed by the social environment in which he places his characters. This is, I would suggest, the moral center of his work. By living as if there were no other landscape, his characters repudiate the deadening civic nostalgia that so plagues the US with the ersatz, as in Quincy Market in Boston, or Beale Street in Memphis, where even the police station has its own museum attached. All the historic districts, hardwood floors, and fake gas lamps in the world will not bring back what we have given up: Barthelme's characters know that so well they have internalized it. It is we who, like the son Julian in O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge," still long for a lost gentility we shall never recover.

This is not say that Moon Deluxe is some kind of cyberpunk celebration of shopping malls and concrete. Barthelme's acceptance of the contemporary landscape is as much a stylistic device as an end in itself, but it is a device by which he transforms the ordinary into the dreamlike: for his protagonists, ordinary life still possesses a mystery and a promise, even if it is a mystery they are in no hurry to have solved; and they are not driven by their hormones. Their very diffidence implies an openness, even generosity of spirit. The narrating "you" of "Shopgirls" does not really want to meet the objects of his careful watch: when teased with the idea that it would have been "a dream come true" had one of the shopgirls introduced herself to him earlier, he is decidedly unenthusiastic: "I don't know. Not exactly—maybe."

This openness accounts for the voyeurism motif in Barthelme's stories. In the title piece, for example, the narrator Edward has an awkward encounter with two young women, roommates, one a lively blonde, the other a stunning femme fatale. Elements of dialogue and of setting particularly—lush foliage and winding paths amid a modern apartment complex—produce a mysteriousness about the two women. Lily and Antonia, that defies us to apply to them the labels "lesbian" or "bisexual" even after the relevance of those terms is made clear. Upon leaving the couple, Edward muses, "You wonder what it would be like if they invited you to stay the night, to sleep on the splendid yellow couch, to have a hurried breakfast with them before work, to be part of their routine." Likewise, the narrator of "Exotic Nile," seeing a strip of brick houses off a highway, "wondered how it would feel to live out there, with the highway and the big electrical towers." The 16-year-old Violet, a waitress at "Pie Country," claims to be a runaway when she shows up at the door of one of her regular customers, in effect, going undercover in order to meet him: "'You probably wouldn't know me out of uniform,' she says." The fantasies here are not sexual but rather of participation, of contact with another daily reality. In this regard, Barthelme anticipates the wistful daydreaming of Richard Ford's sports-writer, Frank Bascombe, who hopes for an easy intimacy with his prospective father-in-law, "even if Vicki and I didn't work things out": "If his tire went flat some rainy night in Haddam or Hightstown or any place within my area code, he could call me up. I'd drive out to get him … he would go off into the Jersey darkness certain he had a friend worthy of his trust." Here and elsewhere, Ford's Frank Bascombe fantasizes about being, in effect, a regular guy. In Barthelme, sometimes even the talk is about voyeurism, as in this discussion from "Pool Lights" between a young woman named Dolores Prince and the story's narrator. Even here, the sexual connotations of "watching" take second place to sheer curiosity about other people:

"I imagine all these people looking out their windows at me. It makes me nervous."

"Oh you can't think about that," Dolores says. She scans the buildings surrounding the pool. "If they look, they look—who gets hurt?" She says this with a coy smile, as if she suspects you watch poolside parties from the apartment window. She wipes more lotion on her thighs. "Some Saturday afternoons in summer the sunbathers are irresistible, I guess, especially through a slit in the curtains…. I like watching them talk to each other. The way they move around gesturing, making faces—it's interesting."

"I know what you mean. And the women aren't bad either."

Ultimately, Barthelme leaves us uncertain about the fate of his characters and uncertain too, perhaps, about the durability of the delicate tones and narrative methods that sustain his '80s pastoral. His work since Moon Deluxe, in the short story and in novels, has been inconsistent, while signaling continuing fascinations. Children become increasingly prominent, though Barthelme and his narrators, like many Americans, have trouble balancing the demands of children and marriage, so much so, in fact, that one of his best novels organizes itself by dividing its attention neatly between the narrator's son and his wife. The title of this novel, Natural Selection, hints at an increasingly elegiac, even desperate strain. Its ending, a harrowing catastrophe on the highway, contains two things absent from Moon Deluxe: violence and death. That novel and its title might remind us that suggestions of the fragility of life occasionally do surface in the earlier work. The dinosaur of "Box Step" alludes to a possibility of extinction that Natural Selection only confirms. Indeed, Moon Deluxe contains several references to extinct, endangered, or exotic animals: the dying aquarians of "Fish," a wolf in the title story, the reptiles of "Gila Flambé." On a more domestic front, the fight between neighboring dogs that inaugurates "The Browns" catches the reader by surprise, not only by the reference to fighting, but by the very presence of the dogs themselves, emblematic of a daily world of biology and animality that is itself largely missing from Moon Deluxe. With rare exceptions, not only are there no children in these stories, there are no parents. Perhaps the most endangered species in Moon Deluxe is its single, childless, male narrator. Henry Pfeister in "Box Step" confesses to Ann that he feels "nervous … all the time. I don't know why." Later she dances the box step not with Henry but with his toy dinosaur. A photograph in Lily and Antonia's apartment in "Moon Deluxe" "shows a man with a black fedora and cane rolled up in a rug in a small room whose only other occupant is a wolf." In both this story and in "Monster Deal"—surely, a conscious reworking of the former—the narrator loses out in the competition for a sexual mate to, not a male rival, but a woman. Barthelme's bachelor is frequently confronted with a feminine vitality that overawes him, a vitality invariably signaled by great height. The 16-year-old Violet who shows up mysteriously at the narrator's door is six-feet tall, we're told; later, the two of them encounter a slow-witted if gentle giant, the seven-foot-four Sidney, who seeks only the pleasure of driving the narrator's Rabbit. Antonia, a man-eater of sorts ("So many men, so little time," her T-shirt reads) is "Huge, extraordinary, easily over six feet." Another narrator describes his unexpected guest Tina as "a monster … Six feet if she's an inch." Barthelme allows the exotic vitality of his women characters to highlight the limitations of his male protagonists. In a scene near the end of "Grapette," its male narrator loses contact with the earth altogether as he levitates on a La-Z-Boy recliner, "pushing back until I'm horizontal, floating in the middle of the living room." The scene concludes "Grapette," in fact, with one of the few hints of longing and regret in the whole of Moon Deluxe. Having returned from a ride in her new car, and spurning an invitation from the party-animal engineers, the narrator catches the curiosity of Carmel when he mentions the eponymous beverage, now, alas, long extinct:

"What is it?"

"The end of the world as we have known it."


"Little purple bottles, six ounces." I wave my hand and twist my head to one side so I can see her on the couch. "Grapette kind of went away, I guess. I hate that."

She's still for a minute, then squirms up on the sofa and pulls the white cushion into her lap turning to face me. "Are you sure? Maybe we ought to go find some, maybe it's still out there."

It is, significantly, the ex-nymphet Carmel and not the narrator who voices that hope, as if the soft drink's childish name suddenly evokes for her an innocence she let go of too soon. But the slightly apocalyptic note here is not the collection's last word. Although its title suggests yet another of the deferred or defused encounters so common in Moon Deluxe, the final story, "Rain Check," leaves us with Barthelme's narrator nearing 40, bloodied but unbowed, walking his date (almost half his age) to her door "just the way I've been walking women to their doors for better than twenty years." The narrator might well be bloodied, since his uncomfortable dinner with Lucille is followed by an accident on the road: their car collides with an ASPCA truck. The closing paragraph of the story suggests that there may be hope yet for Barthelme's bachelors; and for readers who remember their Swift, the scene may also justify my allusion earlier to his "Description of a City Shower":

Then, with the garbage men going up and down the street singing some kind of lilting reggae tune, and the cans clanking around and rolling in the gutter when they're thrown from the truck back toward where they were picked up, Lucille says haltingly, "So. What about a shower?" I give her a long look, letting the silence mount up. I stand there with her for a good two minutes, without saying a word, trying to outwait her, trying to see what's what. It's nearly five o'clock and the light out is delicate and pink. The garbage song dies off up the block, and half a dozen fatigued-looking kids in matching jackets pull up in a green Dodge and pile into the street, making catcalls and whistling and pointing at us. She smiles at me as if she really does like me. Maybe we've been there longer than two minutes, but when the smile comes, I see her lips a little bit apart and her slightly hooded eyes, and she traces her fingers down my arm from the elbow to the wrist and stops there, loosely hooking her fingertips inside my shirt cuff, pinching my skin with her nails.

Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. (essay date Fall 1994)

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SOURCE: "Suburban Culture, Imaginative Wonder: The Fiction of Frederick Barthelme," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 105-14.

[In the following essay, Brinkmeyer discusses the suburban world of Barthelme's fiction.]

In Frederick Barthelme's most recent novel, The Brothers, a forty-four-year-old divorcee, Del, recounts to his girlfriend Jen a terrifying apocalyptic dream he has had. In a world of huge concrete towers and structures, scores of people are crushed by huge earth equipment, and a remnant of survivors attempts to rebuild the world amidst mountains of rubble and a river of sewage. Jen asks Del what it all means, "What's the story, exactly?" Del responds: "There isn't any story. It's not the story. It's just this breathtaking world, that's the point. It's like the story's not important—what's important is the way the world looks. That's what makes you feel the stuff. That's what puts you there." Aside from what they reveal about his own outlook, Del's suggestive comments call to mind Eudora Welty's observations in her famous essay, "Place in Fiction." There Welty argues that setting, rather than plot, most fundamentally determines the character of a work of fiction. "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else," Welty writes. "Imagine Swann's Way laid in London, or The Magic Mountain in Spain, or Green Mansions in the Black Forest. The very notion of moving a novel brings ruder havoc to the mind and affections than would a century's alterations in its time." For Welty, only by seeing things in context, placed, can a person focus what she calls "the gigantic, voracious eye of genius" to recognize the mysterious wonder of life. "The act of focusing itself has beauty and meaning," she writes; "it is the act that, continued in, turns into meditation, into poetry. Indeed, as soon as the least of us stands still, that is the moment something extraordinary is seen to be going on in the world."

Welty's—and Del's—commentson setting and vision in narrative are useful for an understanding of Barthelme's fiction, despite the fact that his fictional world of suburbs and shopping malls is anything but the catastrophic setting of Del's dream and that his postmodernist minimalism shares little with Welty's richly detailed prose. Intriguingly, Barthelme transforms Welty's dynamics of place in a way that Welty, writing in the pre-Sunbelt South, probably never anticipated: he achieves poetry, in Welty's terms, by the detailed evocation of a place—suburbia—that is by its very definition placeless, a place that could be anyplace. By exploiting this fertile contradiction, Barthelme breaks through the seeming sterility of his setting and into a sense of wonder.

Certainly, at first glance, Barthelme's suburban world of apartment complexes, shopping malls, and consumer culture appears far from wondrous. A drab sameness seems to color everything, with most everyone adrift in a world of broken relationships and unsatisfying jobs, gripped by some type of anomie. At their worst, Barthelme's suburban places are ugly consumer strips, as the one described in Two against One:

The highway that split the place in two was bordered on both sides by gas stations and convenience stores and restaurants and nurseries—and these weren't slick, modern, glitzy examples of the breeds. These were low-down, on-the-cheap rehashes: a U-Haul rental place in a former car wash; a video store in a building that still had a purple silhouette of a woman in some kind of aerobics pose on its side; a movie theater in an otherwise empty strip shopping center; a couple of huge blue cedar-sided apartment projects with no cars around them; and hundreds of those tiny prefab wood-siding shacks that you buy off a lot, thrown up along the side of the highway to advertise Bird Heaven, Strings & Things, International Wholesale Outlet, Rug-O-Mania, The Bomb Squad—Edward liked that one—with its "Fireworks to Suit Every Occasion" slogan in Chinese-looking letters under the name, Rent-My-Tux, Hair by Gordie, and the strangest one, a small black building that had "Moose Parts" in crude, handwritten red letters on its roof.

And yet, for all its shoddiness, Barthelme's suburban world always verges on opening into wonder and mystery, visible to those who stand still and look closely. For Martin, the protagonist of Tracer, parking lots are sources of endless beauty and mystery:

I always liked parking lots, especially big ones at dusk, or at night, the way they look, all that open space, the glass in the cars shining, reflecting the lights; different kinds of lots, landscaped ones with cars on different levels, slopes painted with bright directions, boxed trees plum and squat, and wide open ones that stretch hundreds of yards in every direction, punctuated with store signs in harsh colors and careful letters, or curious, circus-like letters that sizzle against dark buildings, or ink-blue sky; and they're wonderful when it rains, or when it has rained, they're even better then than usual because of the way the light splinters and glitters all over the place, and because of how things sound, how it sounds on a cool night when a car rolls through a puddle nearby, or when two or three shoppers walk past, talking, their voices distinct but not quite decipherable, or when there's a breeze going in fits across the blacktop, blowing paper cups in manic half-circles, dragging crumpled cardboard boxes, rolling a soft drink bottle.

Martin's capacity for wonder, his startling response to the ordinary, is precisely what Barthelme's fiction most fundamentally celebrates; and his response can be understood as Barthelme's signpost for how to read his stories and novels about ordinary people in ordinary situations in ordinary settings: keep your eyes posted for the wonder of it all.

Barthelme's celebrations of suburbia signal the tremendous departure his fiction takes from the mainstream Southern literary tradition. Writers of the Southern literary renascence characteristically depicted, with a good deal of regret, the passing of traditional Southern life before the onslaught of modernity. These writers typically foregrounded the loss of cultural stability and identity brought by the demise of traditional culture, and celebrated the heroics of Southerners who sought to transcend the chaos of modernity by affirming traditional values and order. In contrast to their forebears, post-renascent writers, particularly those from the 1960s and after, characteristically have shifted their focus away from matters involving the South's cultural distinctiveness to those involving individuals' existential problems. Few of these later writers have cut themselves off so radically from the previous generation as Barthelme. There is almost nothing of the traditional South left in Barthelme's world: his is the New South, the Sunbelt, an upscale South remade by money and success into a suburban culture that could be just about anywhere in America. It's the Nashville Agrarians' worst nightmare, the Americanization of Dixie. Perhaps most striking in Barthelme's fiction is the absence of Southern self-consciousness. There's no burden of Southern history and identity because his characters no longer think about such things. Their focus remains fixed almost entirely on present-day matters; if they are haunted at all by the past, it is not by cultural memory but by personal ones, usually those of childhood and early adulthood when life seemed simpler and more vital.

On the level of style, Barthelme also has cut himself loose from mainstream Southern literature, eschewing the rich, elevated language used by so many Southern writers. Fred Hobson has observed that most notable Southern fiction in the twentieth century "has been characterized by a certain elevated sense, a sense … of living dramatically, tied both to language and to certain notions about grandeur of person and nobility of purpose, and sometimes both." Barthelme, in contrast, downplays the dramatic, focusing on the quotidian and writing with pared-down rhetoric that has few images and metaphors. This is minimalist literature, close in style to the work of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tobias Wolff, and others and typified, as Arthur M. Saltzman notes, by "spartan technique and the focus on the tiny fault lines that threaten to open out into violence or defeat." Minimalism is not much in vogue these days, and a number of critics have dismissed Barthelme and other minimalists as writers of the postliterate generation. In this view, minimalism is anorexic, prose stripped of all artfulness portraying weightless characters. It has been derogatorily termed as "Lo-Cal Literature," "Freeze-Dried Fiction," and "Around-the-house-and-in-the-yard Fiction"—that is, writing as dreary as the lives it depicts.

Whatever validity such criticism might have for other writers, it misses an entire realm in Barthelme's fiction. For while Barthelme's work typically focuses on the commonplace, it all the while suggests that the ordinary can be the site of transfiguration. Raymond Carver's observation about portraying the commonplace in fiction certainly applies to Barthelme's depiction of suburban life: "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power." If Barthelme works for such transformation with his prose, his characters also strive for such regeneration with their lives, seeking to endow the world with mystery and power. This usually occurs when they perceive something familiar—usually a suburban scene, such as a street, shopping mall, parking lot, or apartment complex—from a different angle or in a different light. In Two against One, for instance, Edward and Elise sit transfixed before their picture window one night when an ambulance's blue light illuminates the street, their neighborhood transformed before their eyes into a marvelous, pulsating landscape. And later, Edward, on a late-night walk, finds the standing water in a pothole breathtakingly beautiful, which sends him into a reverie about the world around him:

"Look at this night. It's a beautiful night." He gestured this way and that, pointing out the things he was talking about as he talked about them. "There are some lovely trees. And there are nice houses. There's one, and there's another. And then, above them, the clear night sky, with the twinkling stars twinkling. And below me this fine pavement, pavement of the first quality, fine concrete appropriately curbed, and these handsome street lamps, full of this aggressive blue light that seems to go where no man has gone before, in under the tree limbs, in under the eaves of houses, irradiating the darkness, revealing, revealing. It's a wonderful light."

Reviewers have noted Barthelme's startling evocation of wonder through the commonplace, frequently registering at the same time astonishment at their wonder with his minimalist prose. Francine Prose, for instance, in her review of Two against One for the New York Times Book Review, writes that

for an alleged minimalist, Frederick Barthelme has always displayed a hearty appetite for the luminous and the extravagant, a faith in the power of serendipity to transform the anesthetized life. His disaffected characters drift through their New South condo complexes, the Hockneyesque poolscapes he has staked out for his turf, their responses so disconnected and elliptical that astonishment has ample room to sneak into the spaces between.

Critics have also often underscored the unsettling responses to Barthelme's conjoining of the ordinary with the mysterious, pointing to the mixed response of despair and joy that his stories and novels characteristically evoke. In the review cited just above, for instance, Francine Prose writes that Two against One elicits "compassion and dismay." Newsweek's reviewer of Second Marriage observes that Barthelme's "stories may be bleak, but there's a tenderness about them that's both astonishing and pleasing." And David MacFarlane, in a review of Moon Deluxe for MacLeans, writes that "although Barthelme's effects often have the nightmarish quality of Kafka, there is seldom anything fantastic about his stories"; he finds Barthelme's fictional world "eerie, haunting, strange, but somehow familiar and somehow ordinary."

These unsettled responses to Barthelme's fiction, responses acknowledged but for the most part not analyzed, suggest the extreme power of his fiction, a power that I would suggest resides in the grotesque. Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature, locates the disturbing power of the grotesque, what he calls "a species of confusion," in its merging of categories normally kept discrete. "Broadly speaking," Harpham writes,

we apprehend the grotesque in the presence of an entity—an image, object, or experience—simultaneously justifying multiple and mutually exclusive interpretations which commonly stand in relation of high to low, human to subhuman, divine to human, normative to abnormal, with the unifying principle sensed but occluded and imperfectly perceived.

By this reading, the grotesque, found in the gaps between the known and the unknown, knots together the alien with the familiar and challenges the beholder to resolve the ambivalence that this intermingling evokes. Harpham writes of the generative power of the grotesque:

Fragmented, jumbled, or corrupted representation leads us into the grotesque; and it leads us out of it as well, generating the interpretive activity that seeks closure, either in the discovery of a novel form or in a metaphorical, analogical, or allegorical explanation.

Harpham's reading of the grotesque goes far in explaining the unsettling power of Barthelme's fiction, a fiction that in depicting a world at once surreal and familiar, dreamlike and ordinary, startling and quotidian, challenges the reader to work through his or her ambivalence by generating novel ways of understanding it.

Barthelme's characters, who typically find themselves at some point in their lives overwhelmed by conflicting feelings and confusion, face a similar challenge. Their struggles to come to terms with their ambivalence, usually about love and relationships, form the heart of his fiction. Edward's conflicted feelings toward his estranged wife Elise in Two against One typify the struggles of Barthelme's characters: "It was typical of his life with Elise, when he'd had a life with Elise, that he would like her one minute and dislike her the next, that he would find her heartbreaking and lovable and then turn around moments later and find her repellent." Barthelme's characters are generally at such a loss because the old rules of living, those of simple cause and effect, of having obvious problems and obvious solutions, no longer seem to apply to their lives. Peter's discontent in Natural Selection is endemic to Barthelme's fictional world:

"What's wrong is we don't have an obvious problem, something to make it simple. The good thing about misfortune, about being poor, addicted, cut up with a knife, sick with some high-profile disease, is that everything's easy as long as you're under pressure—it's easy to know what to do, what to think, how to act, what to feel. It's like TV. There are no additional complications. On the other hand you take us, no obvious problems, plenty of food, shelter, a healthy child, a decent life, house, cars, a future of some kind—we should be happy. But when things start to look O.K., the problems get intricate and insidious—it's not easy to figure things out anymore."

The simplicity of which Peter speaks is precisely what most of Barthelme's characters seek; it is a way out of their confusion. But ultimately whatever clarity a character discovers is later mired in ambivalence—the end of the search generates another quest in a continuous process of growing insight and frustration.

The pleasure of even momentary clarity defines the appeal—and the limits—of the gruesome and bizarre stories that Jen in The Brothers posts all over bulletin boards and store windows. To the comment from one of her friends that the stories are grotesque, Jen responds:

"Yeah, but they're clear. There's no mistaking them. They're grotesque enough so there's no disguising what goes on in them. It's like all the cartoony plot stuff in books and movies—it makes them easy to follow, easy to understand. You don't get lost, and you don't have to worry about what things mean all the time."

Clearly Jen's stories are not grotesque in Harpham's sense; they are merely exaggerated tales that elicit clear rather than ambivalent responses and so shut down rather than prompt interpretative activity. This simplistic clarity stands out dramatically against the confusing yet generative world—the grotesque world—in which Barthelme's characters flounder.

In his discussion of the grotesque, Harpham suggests that its uncanny, evocative power is located in the interval, or the frontier, between two opposing realms of order and understanding. Barthelme's suburban world, frequently set along the Gulf Coast, is such an interval, the frontier between city and country, land and sea. This frontier world lacks the coherence of a stable society (it lacks a generally-held, historically-based tradition), and most of the people who live there are pulled alternately—and at times simultaneously—toward an ideal of ultimate freedom (embodied in the act of escape, in the unbounded wilderness) and ultimate community (embodied in the security of conformity, in the hierarchy of structured society). Barthelme's suburbs mix together both ideals, with characters being pulled this way and that in their discontent and in their searches for happiness.

At the one extreme, Barthelme's characters seek out the security of a place in a neatly structured and organized world. They characteristically take great joy in organizing their homes and in keeping things in order. The precision of neatly laid-out subdivisions delights them. In Two against One, one of Edward's fondest memories of his marriage with Elise is their weekday evening drives through the suburbs, "where all the houses were alike, and all the office buildings were middle-sized and clad in green or bronze-tinted glass, and the shopping centers were new, with pristine asphalt and bright yellow parking spines patterning the smooth black lots like erratic backbones." On these drives Edward radiates with contentment, awash with

a sense of a world properly ordered, appropriately in control, and at bay. Edward liked looking at the homes they passed, homes where small hopes had been effectively met, thinking of himself both as an integral part of that world, of having a home like that himself, where the warm yellow light from the interior laced the edges of the leaves of the chinaberry tree that stood just outside the glass, and somehow, too, as a glider in that world, a planetary traveler with no exceptional powers or capacities, and every good intention.

Edward's joyful sense of being part of a community—but not being utterly subsumed in it—is echoed throughout Barthelme's fiction when characters delight in living in apartment complexes, where they feel, as Peter does in Natural Selection, the "odd comfort of being close to people with whom you have almost nothing in common, the community feeling even though you never talk to these people, and only rarely see them."

Too much community, too much order and stability, however, leads Barthelme's characters into despair. Lurking at all times beneath their joy in suburban order is their fear of the stultifying routine to which such order frequently leads. At its extreme, suburban order becomes the crushing sameness found in the exclusive and restricted retirement community where Jen's parents (in The Brothers) live, a community Del terms as "Empty World." Jen characterizes the development as "the kind of place where you only have to print the newspaper once, because nothing ever happens. Everything is cookie-cuttered." Almost all of Barthelme's protagonists are haunted by the fear that their lives are becoming or have become like those who live in such retirement communities: secure but routine, ordered but repetitious, without worry but without wonder. Usually the focus of this discontent is the protagonist's relationship with his or her spouse or lover, a relationship that has not come undone in violence and anger but has devolved from joyous spontaneity into quiet desperation. Some, like Margaret in The Brothers, find security in the predictable repetition of such a relationship. "I would die and go to heaven before I'd let Bud go," she says of her husband. "You get sick and tired of everything—every breath, gesture, every nasal note in the voice—but you get over it, and after a while it's like having a big pet around, a dog, a giant monkey lizard." More typically, however, Barthelme's characters come to rage against the everyday details of their marriages or relationships, frequently leaving home to embark on quests to rediscover lost joy and wonder.

These characters' quests involve breaking out of their everyday routines and living instead by whim and accident. They long for new possibilities and wonder in their lives. Lily's words to Peter in Natural Selection suggest what Barthelme's questers seek: "It's all about risk and possibility, it's about love, it's about hope, excitement." For Peter, the complex interweavings of interstate cloverleafs, where at great speeds instantaneous decisions must be made, embody the thrill of danger and possibility that he so desperately wants in his life:

I knew this part of the freeway, of course, we'd been through it a hundred times, five hundred times, but it never failed to stun me with its complexity, its grace, the danger of its intersections, the quirkiness of the linkages drivers routinely made, day after day, the quickness with which decisions came upon you. One moment you were on track, moving forward at freeway speeds, knowing exactly where you were and where you were going, where you were supposed to be in this elaborate set of intersections, and the next moment was a chaos of possibilities, of exits flashing by faster than you could figure which they were, where they went, of ramps cantilevered off in odd directions, of stacked and clustered signs pointing out connections to Interstate 59, 75, 31 East….

As Peter suggests here, there is both joy in the routine, in knowing one's way, and joy in the possibility of cutting loose, of spontaneously setting off in new directions. Most of Barthelme's characters seek this mix of order and disorder in their lives, an interweaving that mirrors Peter's reading of the interstate and more generally the suburbs in which they live. On a more profound level, it is an interweaving suggestive of Harpham's grotesque, a generative confusion.

How Barthelme's characters respond to the ambivalence generated by suburban life in large part determines whether or not they reinscribe wonder back into their lives. Only by embracing their confusion and attempting to work through it does a person invigorate his or her vision to the mysterious beauty of the commonplace. In The Brothers, an expriest, Marco D'Lo, describes how when he was in religious life the outside world looked fresh and alive. "When you're in there you think there's a whole world out here, a whole range of experiences, a fabulous array of things to do, ideas to have, women to meet," he says. "It's all bullshit. You get out, and there's nothing out here." But as Barthelme's fiction makes clear, Marco is wrong; there is something out there, the suburbs, a grotesque interval of order and disorder cluttered with things and spaces not of themselves mysterious and wondrous, but regenerative in their challenge to the active imagination to make them so. Barthelme's suburban world, as a number of critics have pointed out, is a world of things, of artificial objects, not a modernist world of universals, but a postmodernist world of surfaces, textures, and signs. What's most important are not the things themselves, but what one makes of them: it's matter of not being immobilized by one's vision—that is, by thinking in essences, by falling prey to established patterns—but being invigorated by the wonder of the most commonplace object. In rupturing everyday routine and celebrating everyday matters, a person delights in the festive play of the imagination. Even such a mundane occurrence as lamb chops on the grill, as we see in Natural Selection, can inspire festive wonder. "Lamb chops." Peter muses as he thinks about dinner, "and suddenly the world was new, a place of mystery and possibility."

At first glance, it is tempting to dismiss Barthelme's (and indeed all of America's) suburbia as an ugly hodge-podge of subdivisions, shopping strips, and malls where everyday life has lost vitality and significance. But as becomes apparent with closer examination, Barthelme suggests that even in this world of surfaces and commodification, and indeed in part because of these conditions, the human imagination still possesses the power to transfix and transfigure, to remake anew. That a simple object can inspire such imaginative mystery may in fact be largely explained by the possibility that the creation of imaginative wonder in the mind mirrors the production of material things in the world. As Elaine Scarry demonstrates in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, the creation of artifact, be it poem or chair, involves an arc of action, a projection of imaginative vision by the maker and then, because of the power of the artifact to remake sentience (a poem alters the way we see things, a chair the way we sit), a return back to the maker who is remade in the process. "It is this total, self-amplifying arc of action," Scarry writes,

rather than the discrete object, that the human maker makes: the made object is simply the made-locus across which the power of creation is magnified and redirected back onto its human agents who are now caught up in the cascade of self-revision they have themselves authored.

In their abundance of objects and signs, Barthelme's suburbs everywhere announce themselves as constructed, as artifacts, by Scarry's reading as sites of wonder—and so they are appropriate sites for Barthelme's characters to construct their lives by imaginative wonder.

The natural world in Barthelme's fiction also can inspire creative remaking, but generally only when it is perceived as something made, when it is seen metaphorically as a constructed object—for instance, when clouds are seen as plates or spills of Cool Whip. Such metaphors do not diminish Barthelme's characters' appreciation of the world but actually enrich it; as Janet Burroway writes in her review of The Brothers, the natural world understood as the man-made is for Barthelme "the real world, reconstituted, regurgitated and gorgeous." Reconstituted, regurgitated, and gorgeous is also a way for us to understand Barthelme's suburbia, a grotesque world clustered with the everyday objects of modern life and remade by the imagination into a world of possibility and joy.

Robert Siegle (review date December 1994)

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SOURCE: "While (Big) Brother Sleeps," in American Book Review, December, 1994, pp. 16, 29-30.

[In the following excerpt, Siegle asserts that Barthelme's The Brothers "tempts sarcasm, since the utterly pathetic and vapid imaginations of its self-indulgent video-victims spill an emptiness that invades the prose of its third-person 'omniscient' narrator."]

Any novel sounds ridiculous in summary. (1) A rich girl is abducted, raped, and dies; the guy is sorry afterward. (2) A young kid assumes the whole world is to be his; when he ends up broke and alone, he's grateful to become a multinational's gofer. (3) A small town girl marries an old guy and gets bored, but he dies and she marries Mr. Right. (4) A college kid can't handle his sister's unplanned pregnancy and kills himself; the family is bummed out. (5) A pair of brothers get stuck in mid-life crises; one finds himself a young chick, the other winds up pacing the balcony with his head wrapped up with sheets into a big blind ball. [(1) Clarissa; (2) Great Expectations; (3) Middlemarch; (4) The Sound and the Fury; (5) The Brothers.] You have to hope something happens along the way to redeem the always bad idea of a coherent narrative line.

The last of these cruel summaries reduces Frederick Barthelme's The Brothers by almost 262 pages. In those pages we learn more about the titular fellows. Younger brother Del dallies with his sister-in-law (Margaret) and shacks up with "a younger, thinner, pastier" surrogate (Jen) who "made him enviable when they went down the street together" and therefore "produced a feeling of power, inescapably." Older brother Bud wants the American dream machine (literally: he tries to cash in on a former student's Hollywood connections on a blind sojourn at The Coast, but produces only the cinema verité of himself working furiously, on nothing, at his desk—it's Del and Margaret's prime entertainment during their almost-affair); Bud gives Del the new machines he buys and doesn't like, gives his department head a hard time, ogles "the lovely Vietnamese girl" working as a bartender at the faculty club.

What do they worry about? Computer peripherals, channel-switching on the cable, whether people will think Jen wears no pants under her long t-shirt, "having a bad hair day," whether a dog or even a baby might be in their future. Del sells stereos; wants to be in his own (tame) remake of Blue Velvet, dreams something like Brazil's city landscape vision, gathers grotesque news stories off the Internet for Jen's one-page newsletter (called Warm Digit …), and begins the novel patronizing the beer sucking kid-popping stringy-haired Pinto crowd (his adjectives) from the comfort of his "riding high in the Vibra-Matic cabin of a sixteen-foot Ryder rent-a-truck with his car and everything he owned or wanted to own, just about, in the back of him and the rest of his life somewhere out in front." Father Marco d'Lo (get it?), on vacation from The Order, wishes he'd stayed inside the cloister: "When you're in there you think there's a whole world out here, a whole range of experiences, a fabulous array of things to do, ideas to have, women to meet. It's all bullshit. You get out, and there's nothing out here."

And Bud, also aptly named, tells us "there's nothing wrong with phony stuff; it's just more stuff," and ends the novel wrapped up in his childhood game (of Invisible Man), "bobbing like an enormous Q-Tip against the little black sky." This novel tempts sarcasm, since the utterly pathetic and vapid imaginations of its self-indulgent video-victims spill an emptiness that invades the prose of its third-person "omniscient" narrator (it's the narrator who actually says "bad hair day," who allows an endless catalog of what they've seen on their drive along the Gulf Coast, as if obsessive-compulsive reality-avoidance syndrome required a realtime recording of whatever happened to be out there on a journal-filling roadtrip). The narrator doesn't wince when Jen interrupts its notion of generation X-speak to say, "That film stuff ruins it for me, disauthenticates it." It all reads sometimes as if it were a malicious trick offered to an Iron Man weekend workshop, as if this were all meant to be "just more stuff" in an era when most fiction-for-profit were itself Vibra-Matic, as if the swelled head in the Q-tip image were meant to be Mobius Dick come to clean out our collective ears from the culture machine's Ryder rent-a-life.

Perhaps it simply comes down to what you expect from a "novel." My generation came to Novels from the movies, from comic books, from heroic romances. Novels were amazing to discover, at the right age, because they made their stories connect to the way their societies were wired. From wanting things to work out in the end, we (1) shifted to wanting to see how characters wanting utopia were exercised by the constraints peculiar to their time and place. Timeless tales (the Heroic Thing projected in varying costumes and scenery) still felt like fun, but you didn't try to think with them. When, late into the night, I read Conrad while my big brother slept, I knew I was into something different, something I'd have to think about, something I didn't yet know how to think about.

Then there was Ionesco, the nouveau roman, Beckett, Burroughs, in no particular order, just as they happened to surface through a friend or someone else's casual reference. And of course others, those who began where Conrad's most marginal "asides" to his "proper" narrative left off, who were themselves left off the syllabi and out of the anthologies, who nonetheless had something to do with life outside the classrooms and suburbs. Once you had learned to read the Novel, you learned to read the para-novel, the novel woven into whatever was not high culture, that used the novel to play out not E=MC2 but something like energia is matter multiplied by the exponentiated variable of, well, whatever, it was multiplicity and variability that mattered in a way that would wait around for Deleuze and Guattari to formalize. The Novel, read straight, came to sound like a special case of "the Heroic Thing," but read for self-difference it did something else altogether.

Readers who resent my tone in these paragraphs, for whom "heroic" is a term without stigma ("I like Western Culture," a colleague says; "all that other stuff just doesn't speak to me." I am thanking this trans-Atlantic traveler for the comment, thinking how many others, in/out of the geographic boundaries, will stay invisible along this itinerary of "Western Culture")—readers for whom the novel is honed on the quotidian grindstone with as little as possible of the oil of alien tongues, with scarcely a notion traceable outside the literary canon, with but a whisper against the grand conjunction of middle class ethics and trickle-down economies and the more cherished of cultural continuities, such readers will find Barthelme's novel undisturbing, a rearticulation of mid-century American Fiction with a bit of the Bellow/Updike/ Percy tilt from neurotic narration. The Brothers is not a novel with which to think difference, or even to think differently, though this fact may be relevant only to those readers who recognize some version of their own experience in my literary autobiography paragraphs….

Tom De Haven (review date 24 September 1995)

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SOURCE: "Drive, She Said," in New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1995, p. 11.

[In the following review, De Haven complains that while the travel episodes in Barthelme's Painted Desert "present some of Mr. Barthelme's best descriptive writing … they also contain his weakest, least persuasive fiction."]

In Frederick Barthelme's new novel, Painted Desert, no matter where Del Tribute and his girlfriend, Jen, happen to be—at a coffee shop, a restaurant, the Holiday Inn—they seem also to be at some make-believe broadcasting studio, giving a frank interview. These are the grown children (he's 47, she's 27) of "Nightline" and "Larry King Live," both speaking in premeditatively reckless bursts meant to capture attention and glamorize their complaints. ("We're so cynical that our cynicism takes paint off warships.") These mediaholics are so painfully conscious of the planet—and so convinced that every aspect of it demands an epigrammatic opinion—that it's become a daily struggle just to keep abreast, to stay current. "If we're not actually going to participate in the world," Jen says, "If we're not going to do anything but watch it, then we might as well be good spectators."

It is June 1994, the week O. J. Simpson takes off in the white Bronco. Del, who's on vacation from his "dinky" teaching job at a junior college in Biloxi, agrees to drive to Baton Rouge to meet Jen's father, Mike. It's an awkward visit. A retired insurance man, Mike keeps bringing up the fact that Del is only six years younger than he is. "Doesn't that seem a little odd to you?" Mike says. Whenever he can, Del, hardly the most confrontational of men, slips away—to nap, to brood, to check what's on television.

As a narrator, Del Tribute—who, like Jen, appeared in Mr. Barthelme's previous novel, The Brothers—is a mixed blessing. He's witty and likable, personally kind and fully alert to detail, but his obsession with car crashes, plane wrecks, homicides and fires—what he calls "wonderful stuff"—can turn your stomach. Though Del is blind to his ghoulish proclivities, at least he's honest about the source of his political disgust. "Things weren't going to be fixed, and maybe I didn't want them fixed," he tells us. "I needed the mess to complain about, to point to when I wanted to devalue the system, or protect myself with a kind of alibi for my limited prosperity."

One evening at Mike's, while Del and Jen are watching a documentary, they see a videotape from the 1992 Los Angeles riots in which a truck driver's genitals are spray-painted by an assailant. While Del is mostly just amazed that he's never seen this footage before, Jen is outraged by it. On the spot, she decides to leave for California. She's not sure why, but it's—like, you know—a moral compulsion. Sort of. Besides, she and Del don't have anything else to do. And while they're out in L. A., they can go see Nicole Simpson's house. O. J.'s, too. And "where Rodney King got it."

Sounds like a plan.

To Del's chagrin, Mike—who also doesn't have anything else to do—asks to come along for the ride. He even offers the use of his big black Lincoln Town Car. Then Jen suggests a side trip to Shreveport, where they pick up her morose girlfriend Penny Gibson. At last they're off, California bound.

As so often happens in Mr. Barthelrne's stories, events don't follow human intention. Destination doesn't either. Jen's angry pilgrimage, a muddled venture from the start, turns into a meandering, touristy swing through the Southwest, with impulse visits to Dallas (Dealey Plaza, of course); Roswell, N.M. (a U.F.O. museum); White Sands; the Grand Canyon, and finally the Painted Desert. Oddly, while these episodes present some of Mr. Barthelme's best descriptive writing (much of it could be excerpted without tinkering for a superb travel article), they also contain his weakest, least persuasive fiction.

Because of Del's lack of access to Mike and Penny's private moments, their budding romance seems almost perfunctory, while Jen's on-the-road E-mail correspondence with a homicidal maniac raises ethical and legal issues the novel has no thought of seriously addressing. But it's the conclusion that is most disappointing—and disingenuous.

Mr. Barthelme strongly and seductively suggests that for sheer weirdness, exhilaration and fun, the information superhighway is still no match for the old-fashioned macadam one, but it would take more than "a tittle bit of first-order experience, a little bit of contact with the ground, a little reminder of the wonder of things" to make a pair of hard-wired pessimists like Del and Jen suddenly "feel like saints" and decide to get married. Call me unromantic, call me a killjoy, but I just don't believe it.

Allen Barra (review date 8 October 1995)

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SOURCE: "Westward Through the Void," in Chicago Tribune Books, October 8, 1995, p. 6.

[In the following review, Barra complains that "there's nothing much at stake" in Barthelme's Painted Desert, and that he finds himself "closing [Barthelme's] books with a sense of admiration for his craft but still a little hungry for a novel."]

Frederick Barthelme is a wonderfully entertaining writer who has built, over the last ten years, a large cult following. It's easy to see why. If you're tuned to Barthelme's wavelength, reading his mildly surreal accounts of Mississippi Gulf middle-class folk, rendered in smooth, dialogue-driven prose, is like gliding along one of those water slides they spread on summer lawns for kids to play on. In fact, reading Barthelme anywhere gives you the feeling of reading from your back yard chair in the summer sun. Only, like anything you read in the summer sun, Barthelme's fiction is hard to focus on. There's a little too much light, a little too much glare.

The main character in Painted Desert is Del Tribute, a part-time communications teacher who Barthelme fans will recall from his 1993 novel, The Brothers. In fact, the two books kind of meld together in the mind, as both do with Barthelme's Second Marriage.

This time out, a middle-aged divorced male Barthelme character is given a hot young college-age girlfriend to fool with. (Unlike the middle-aged divorced males in Richard Ford's novels, Barthelme's Del knows something life-sustaining when he smacks into it.) The young woman, Jen, is a "cybermuckraker"—editor of a one-page "magazine" that actually is a randomly distributed collection of horrors culled from tabloid papers. Jen, as they say in that part of the country, is a hoot—good-natured and curious, she wisecracks like Lauren Bacall in a '40s Warner Brothers flick but with a '60s thrust. She also has a snappy way of summing up places and people.

"He likes everything real neat," she says of a neighbor. "Notice how neat the house is? The neighborhood? He's deeply neat."

Painted Desert wouldn't get much of anywhere without her—not across Mississippi, not to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, not to the Arizona Painted Desert of the title, where Jen and Del go on a vacation-odyssey in pursuit of the American Zeitgeist. Along the way, there's much talk of the O. J. trial and the L. A. riots, all of which fills the air with that vague dread that American novelists as different as Joseph Heller and Don DeLillo are always trying to get to the heart of. They never do, of course, and neither does Barthelme. But with Barthelme you get the unsettling feeling that behind all the jokiness his characters really yearn for some kind of apocalypse, if only to stir things up in what otherwise seems like a void. As Del says, "In a sense, I've had an easy life. But in another way it's a punishment, an absence of grand events."

Painted Desert could use a grand event or two; there's nothing much at stake in the book. For some readers, this is the heart of Barthelme's appeal—the dialogue is clever, the characters are always enjoyably quirky and there's nothing too serious going on to distract one from those pleasures. Others, like me, find themselves closing his books with a sense of admiration for his craft but still a little hungry for a novel.

When Barthelme is on a roll, the seemingly random events in his fiction add up to a plausible picture of an incoherent world. But we're never given the author's vision of that incoherence. It's been said that the virtue of Barthelme's style is that he doesn't tell us how we're supposed to feel, but he also doesn't give us any guideposts as to how he feels. His obliqueness isn't meant to be a style; it's meant to be a virtue.

Because it moves from place to place, Painted Desert is even more oblique than his previous books. Barthelme's characters are so stumblingly, amusingly inarticulate that we're often unprepared for the shards of poetic precision the otherwise impersonal author greets us with. One character, glimpsed in passing, is "so thin and pale that he looked like a chapstick with ink on top." A burg Del and Jen pass through is "a ratty little town that dangled off the highway the way a broken leg hangs off a dog that's been hit by a car." A rain is "the lightest rain imaginable" as if it "was slightly embarrassed by being there."

But despite the fine writing, when Jen and Del finally get somewhere, there is, to quote Gertrude Stein on Oakland, no there there. Or perhaps it's that when they get there, they're there—all the there's being much the same.

In Barthelme's world, one place, one situation, one decision offers much the same payoff as any other. What he cannot tell us, though, is why, given such a world, he wants to write novels about it.

Publishers Weekly (review date 25 August 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Bob the Gambler, in Publishers Weekly, August 25, 1997, p. 42.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that "the narration [of Barthelme's Bob the Gambler] is pitch-perfect and the plot is clever, surprising and vibrant with immediacy."]

Clear-sighted, decent Ray Kaiser narrates his sudden capitulation to the allure of Biloxi's Paradise Casino in Barthelme's deftly comic and gently melancholic 11th book [Bob the Gambler]. Abandoning his unremunerative architecture firm (running Ray Kaiser Design "is kind of like being a pro bongo player"), he becomes intoxicated by the rituals and the heady promises of big payoffs at the blackjack tables and the slot machines: "It was a joy to see the money move at a sedate pace back and forth the table, as if it had a life of its own, or was reacting to my will, or the dealer's, or even the magic in the cards." His thoroughgoing investment in the casino prompts him to reevaluate everything—looking askance at the architecture profession even as he takes jobs "a little south on the food chain." With bracing good humor and moral nuance, the novel makes this familiar tale fresh again: Ray is as much a husband and father as he is (in his stepdaughter's sardonic parlance) "Bob the Gambler." His relationships with her, his parents and his wife, Jewel, are beguiling and carefully delineated. The unpredictable and morally ambiguous outcome of the tug-of-war between these relationships and the casino distinguish this rueful comedy, in which the narration is pitch-perfect and the plot is clever, surprising and vibrant with immediacy.