The Mississippi Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina provides the backdrop for a man in hell, in Barthelme’s latest novel (Elroy Nights, 2003, etc.).
The protagonist, Vaughan Williams, is the saddest of sacks, a failed architect whose wife, Gail, has divorced him, whose father’s death has shaken him and who has somehow stumbled into a relationship with the notorious Greta Del Mar, accused of, though never convicted of, murdering her husband. Vaughan had married Gail on the rebound from her brief affair with his brother, Newton, who is younger, far more successful and was obviously the favorite of their parents. Before Vaughan’s father died, he kept making passes at Gail, urging her to leave her hapless husband. So far, pretty funny. Then a fight with her younger boyfriend lands Gail in the hospital, and she turns to Vaughan and Greta for comfort. They move in with her and relationships become more complicated and more pathetic. Gail and Greta start to seem a little too sisterly, while Gail’s on-and-off desire to reunite with Vaughan undermines his relationship with hard-boiled Greta. “It’s the modern world, blasted into the heart of your life,” she says to Vaughan. “You’re in the cross hairs of destiny.” Ultimately, Vaughan begins to agree with his father, that “maybe it was inevitable that the world got dirtier and smaller and crueler with each generation. Coarser—his father’s word—was the best word for it…This was a startling proposition, to suggest that the dominant process over time was not development but deterioration.” It’s also a proposition reflected in the lack of recovery after Katrina, when everything fell apart just like Vaughan’s life, and which the book describes in a manner that could pass as reportage. Yet ultimately this is not a topical novel, dependent upon a specific time and place. It’s a novel about the human condition, absurd at best, a soundtrack for “dancing toward death.”
Seems very funny at the start, but turns increasingly dark and ends on a note of possible redemption.