PAINTED DESERT by Frederick Barthelme


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A zeitgeisty novelist and storywriter hitchhikes on the info highway, only to endorse a decidedly low-tech, retro view of hope and redemption. Barthelme's post-midlife-crisis narrative resurrects bummed-out and divorced Del Tribute (The Brothers, 1993), now hooked up with 27-year-old Jen, a ""cybermucker"" who downloads all sorts of weird and depressing stuff from the Infonet. She's an angry and obsessed fringe-culturist who's waiting ""for something to happen."" Del, pushing 50 and teaching at a Podunk community college, sets off from Biloxi with Jen to avenge a forgotten victim of the LA riots: a Guatemalan immigrant who was attacked and had his genitals painted black. Not quite sure of her plan, Jen who e-mails with a scary ranter from Vegas, a dark avenger bent on violence. On their way west, meanwhile, the odd couple picks up Jen's father, only a few years older than Del but living in a retirement ""Stepford community."" With Jen's college friend Penny also in tow, they head to Dealey Plaza, a truly postmodern landmark that the two deconstruct with much cynical wisdom. Jen fanatically boots up each night to get her fix of ""grim crap,"" while Del channel surfs and inventories the obvious cultural rot. On the road, Jen's father recaptures his youthful sensibility (which he expresses by sleeping with Penny); then, after more freak tourism at UFO sites, the entire group finds themselves decompressing amid the rock formations and desert sunsets. The young women, once desperate to make a difference, now realize the value of nurturing personal relations. They all discover the need to balance the endless horrors of modern life with the sublimities of ""natural wonder."" For a change and for the better, Barthelme's trendiness deliberately works against itself: His eighth book is less a symptom of malaise than a critique of fashionable despair. A road novel that almost gets there.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1995
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Viking