With a divorced male in his 50s living on the Gulf Coast and sorting out various female attachments, this 15th book of fiction from Barthelme (Waveland, 2009, etc.) covers turf similar to that of his last two novels.
Wallace Webster occupies a condo in a development called Forgetful Bay in a town halfway between Galveston and Houston in the century’s second decade. He’s on affectionate terms with four women: his dead first wife’s daughter, his living ex-wife, a younger ex-colleague and an age-appropriate casual lover from a neighboring condo named Chantal White. Her rich history will punctuate the book with moments of violence after she's introduced in her kitchen bound by an intruder with picture-hanging wire and smeared with Yves Klein blue paint (Wallace, like the author, was once an artist and knows color). Another neighbor will get a bullet in the head that may be self-inflicted or a parting shot from his wife, miffed perhaps because a woman in a black slip and heels was dancing early one morning in their driveway. Such incidents provide the only significant action and a little mystery in Wallace’s otherwise quiet life of navigating among his women and memories, dabbling in questions of faith, love and death. He’s “interested in the surfaces” and makes “small pictures, collages, postcards, other almost miniature objects”—which is a fair description of Barthelme’s craft. The dialogue, while entertainingly clever, presents almost every speaker as tersely ironic and in danger of sounding like Seinfeld via Elmore Leonard. His prose sometimes blossoms, though, as in a description of grade-school nuns “who streamed out of the convent like so many ants the better to look me over and tsk and tsk and click their little black beads.” Barthelme doesn’t resolve everything for Wallace, and the ending will have book clubs arguing for hours.
Understated, seemingly offhanded, Barthelme’s writing conveys much about the oddities of contemporary life with warmth and welcome humor.