As in his Great Days collection (1979), though somewhat less impressively, Barthelme continues to refine and test the limits...



As in his Great Days collection (1979), though somewhat less impressively, Barthelme continues to refine and test the limits of the satiric/absurdist/surrealist sub-genres he has pioneered. . . while also moving on to something different, if not necessarily original. The fresh form in Great Days was the all-dialogue piece--part Beckett, part vaudeville. But in this slim new collection Barthelme experiments by going non-experimental: ""Visitors"" is the most conventional story of his career--a quick, realistic (autobiographical?) glimpse of a divorced Greenwich Village father, his visiting teenage daughter, and his brief best-try at romance; it's sad, half-romantic, a little sentimental, laced with hip cultural asides, yet lifted a cut above the genre (cf. Ann Beattie, F. Barthelme, et al.) by a fiercely chuckling undertone, just a faint whiff of parody. ""Lightning,"" too, though verging on the cartoonish in its satire of People magazine, stays firmly this side of fancy--as a freelance writer sets out to get the feelings of nine people who've been struck by lightning: the result--wistful, brutal, sneakily lyrical--is something like a cross between S. J. Perelman and Raymond Carver at his most metaphorical. And even the title piece, a short and dense montage of non-chronological city-hopping vignettes (""In London I met a man who was not in love. . . In San Antonio we walked by the little river""), is less opaque and ambiguous than similar Barthelme mosaics--adding up (again, with uncharacteristic sentimentality) to a fragmented, romantic mini-memoir. Elsewhere, the effects are more familiar: diary entries by a pal of Goethe's, with parody that's inferior to Woody Allen's comparable efforts (""Music; Goethe said, is the frozen tapioca in the ice chest of History""); a whimsical encounter between ninny John Paul Jones and sensitive, dancing Captain Blood; ""The Sea of Hesitation,"" blending historical allusions (Robert E. Lee, Balzac) with the fearful hesitations of contemporary romance; a vision of a ""Mothball Fleet"" of destroyers, delivering a trite, bald anti-war message; tales of city couples (Harris and Claire, Henrietta and Alexandra), studded with surreal touches; and ""Wrack,"" another strong example of that all-dialogue, richly funny and ambiguous form--featuring two aging (aged?) fellows who trade memories, clichÉs, and inventories with the sprightly despair of Vladimir & Estragon. . . or Abbott & Costello. (""Do you think it possible that the shoe may be in some way a cri de coeur./ Not a chance./You were wrong about the dish./ I've never heard a cri de coeur./ You've never heard a cri de coeur?/ Perhaps once. When Shirley was with us./ Who was Shirley?"") Furthermore, interspersed among the eleven short stories here are eleven even shorter, italicized fragments--some of them highly surreal (often rather precious), others roughly satirical (a jab at new-style newspapers), with one Kafka-esque twist on child-rearing, that provides the book's most immediate, nightmarish impact. Not prime Barthelme all the way, then, but the new tone is enticing (notwithstanding the sentimental drift)--and even the more predictable work is flecked with charm, surprise, and challenge.

Pub Date: Nov. 25, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983

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