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

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OVERNIGHT TO MANY DISTANT CITIES

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

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983

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