SECOND MARRIAGE by Frederick Berthelme


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In Barthelme's story collection, Moon Deluxe (1983), an interchangeable series of passive, youngish men got more or less involved with a series of kooky, pushy women--while plastic apartment-complexes (in the South/Southwest) provided the repetitious, socio-cultural background. This slight, meandering first novel, then, is very much a replay/extension, featuring the unappealing relationship between irritatingly passive Henry and kooky, pushy Theo. After a decade or so of living together in an apartment, Theo and Henry opt for a house and a marriage license. But this new setup, which also includes Theo's illegitimate 13-year-old daughter Rachel, promptly seems to unhinge Theo. She obsessively digs a hole in the lawn, then takes off to Colorado with Henry's ex-wife Clare, and returns to announce: ""I want you to move out for a while. . . . We're keeping the house, Clare and me and Rachel."" Henry maintains his cool, moving into motel-rooms and apartments. He has some quickie sex with his landlord's sister-in-law, a dreary fling in Texas with his landlord's wife. He interviews for a new job. He stays in touch with devoted stepdaughter Rachel, to whom he announces: ""I can handle it. It's my assignment. Theo's having a personal space attack, and I can help. Also, she doesn't like me too much. Which is pretty bad news, I guess."" And eventually Theo seems to recover from her vague crisis (commitment? sexual identity?), gives up the apparently lesbian affair with Clare. . . and winds up at the fadeout with patient narrator Henry. Barthelme attempts to fill out this short-story-ish scenario with sideshows: an implausible array of kinky neighbors; Rachel's new chumship with an offbeat college girl; visits to an enervating variety of local eateries (with some labored slapstick at Burger King); a sliver of halfhearted academic satire. But, despite some cute/sweet repartee between Henry and precocious Rachel (""what's the correct level of anxiety for a child like me?""), the attempt to blend quirky comedy with numbed-out angst remains mannered and derivative (cf. Ann Beattie, Andre Dubus, Mary Robison, Max Apple)--while the odd Theo/Henry relationship is an unaffecting blur.

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster