The last names of the principal characters in Second Marriage, Frederick Barthelme’s first novel, are not given. Neither is the name of the Southern city, or even the state, in which they live. They have jobs, but they are not shown doing them, nor do they talk about them. Virtually nothing is said about their pasts. Though the narrator does evidently have feelings, he is profoundly reluctant to reveal them, even to himself. Plot, defined as a causally related sequence of events leading to the resolution of a conflict, barely exists. All of this is to say that Barthelme has deliberately divested himself of most of the tools which traditional realists use to build the house of fiction. Nevertheless, Second Marriage is nothing if not realistic. This book presents the odd spectacle of a skilled craftsman, at the height of his powers, working hard to produce something small and quirky. It might equally be viewed as a very thin, understated novel or a very long New Yorker story. In fact, according to a note on the copyright page, “portions of this book first appeared in different form” there. It is to the readership of that magazine that Second Marriage is most likely to appeal.
Such plot as there is can be summed up in a few sentences. Henry, the narrator, has married Theo after a long period of living with her, and they have bought and moved into a house, along with Theo’s thirteen-year-old daughter Rachel. Theo is on good terms with Clare, Henry’s first wife, who, as a result of problems with her boyfriend, moves in with Theo and Henry. After awhile, Theo asks Henry to move out, which he does, and drifts into and out of several brief, not-very-satisfying sexual affairs; then Clare moves to Colorado, and Henry moves back in with Theo. The novel could as easily be half as long or twice as long; it is a question simply of how many episodes Barthelme chooses to include.
If the emphasis so far has been on what Second Marriage is not, this is to suggest that Barthelme’s canvas is more shadow than highlight. Actually there are many brief, sharply realized scenes; the point is that, from the perspective of most readers and writers, the emphasis is deliberately skewed. Henry’s courtship of Theo is summarized in several sentences, their wedding disposed of in less than a page. In neither instance is there any indication of what anyone is feeling; what the reader does learn instead (and this is a typical kind of detail) is that “Jerry played the Wedding March on his horn and passersby slowed their Buicks and Oldsmobiles to watch the ceremony.” The scenes that most writers would emphasize—the wedding, the reconciliation at the end—are muted almost to the vanishing point. Barthelme chooses rather to focus on minor events which reveal the surface of everyday life. Thus, pages and pages are devoted to Henry and Theo’s squabble with their neighbors, stemming from an altercation between the family dogs. A considerable amount of attention is paid to the interiors of the bravely tacky houses and apartments and motel rooms in which the characters live, or at least pass their days and nights. The characters eat but hardly ever cook. If Second Marriage has an organizing principle, it is a random circular journey by automobile; if a central image, it is a fast-food joint.
The characters go to Pie Country and Long John Silver’s and Burger King, and there random encounters take place. (Almost all encounters in this novel are random; little is planned more than a few minutes ahead of time.) At Pie Country, Henry and Theo and Rachel run into Clare and her boyfriend. Later, at Long John Silver’s, Henry and Rachel strike up a conversation with Kelsey, a nubile college student, who then follows them home and becomes peripherally involved in the action. What Barthelme does and does not do with these scenes is instructive. In the first, “Clare led us across the restaurant to her table so she could introduce her boyfriend, Joel, who was a smallish guy with more muscles than he really needed.” Nevertheless, the sexual tension implicit in Henry’s snideness (one can imagine Ernest Hemingway’s Jake Barnes making the same sort of wisecrack) never develops. In fact, there is virtually no conversation between Henry and the other adults. Theo chats with Clare and Joel at one table, Henry with Rachel at another. In contrast with Jake’s keen awareness of Brett in The Sun Also Rises (1926), Henry apparently pays no attention to what is going on across the way. Characters have been brought onstage; in their physical grouping there is merely a hint of Theo’s later alliance with Clare at the expense of Henry, but of what Henry might be feeling about this situation almost nothing is revealed. “You were looking pretty rocky there for a minute,” Rachel says, having dragged him away from the others—but whether or not he was feeling rocky, Henry does not say.
The question then arises: What purpose does this very typical scene, which might stand as an emblem of Barthelme’s method throughout the novel, serve? Its function in terms of plot and character development is minimal. Only when viewed not as part of a larger entity but, primarily, as a discrete...
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