Frederick Barthelme Barthelme, Frederick - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Ann Hulbert (review date 31 October 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)

Holly Prado (review date 6 October 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Roz Kaveney (review date 21 March 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Alan Cheuse (review date 19 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Bette Pesetsky (review date 3 May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Susan Slocum Hinerfeld (review date 31 May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Francine Prose (review date 13 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1126 words.)

Lem Coley (review date May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 19 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Amy Hempel (review date 19 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

Janet Burroway (review date 10 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1114 words.)

David Shields (review date 2 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

Timothy Peters (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Robert Siegle (review date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1200 words.)

Tom De Haven (review date 24 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 792 words.)

Allen Barra (review date 8 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 25 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 261 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 124 words.)