Veteran Barthelme (stories: The Law of Averages, 2000, etc.) sets a semi-successful professor to wondering about the meaning of life—and the reader can actually take him seriously now and then.
How is it, ponders narrator Elroy, that a person’s life turns out as it does—so that “you have this, suddenly and startlingly not at all what you sought.” The answer is—well, you get older. Elroy, an artist until he got bored with the effort and repetitiveness of it, has been for years an art professor at a college in Biloxi—where he thinks mainly about his female students: the youth, allure, and mystery of them. His regrets at not having taken his sexual opportunities may have something to do with the decision he and his wife Clare make at story’s opening to “get some space into the marriage, some room to maneuver.” Elroy takes an apartment with a view of the water—and finds himself involved with student-aged kids: his own stepdaughter Winter, her racy female friend Freddy, the talented but troubled art student Edward Works (who’ll die), and Winter’s seeming lover, the curious Victor. Things wander as Elroy ponders his life and the unfulfilling world around him, fixates on the sexy Freddy, gets fellated by her in his college office, and . . . ? To fill book’s middle, there’s a pointless car trip to Memphis and Dallas taken by Elroy, Freddy, Winter, and Victor, with overnights, an Elroy/Freddy consummation, a hackneyed stick-up in a roadside stop-n-go, and a homecoming in Biloxi where wife Clare is troubled by the Elroy-Freddy consummation. The whole is accompanied by ultra-tough-talk (“It’s not a hard ass thing, it’s just shit happens. I mean, people say this stuff about it, but it passes”), and, after some quite lovely nostalgia-riffs by Elroy as he remembers his childhood, he finds himself gravitating back toward Clare.
“It’s not as simple as they make it on TV,” says Freddy. Says the reader, oh, dear, but yes it is.