National Book Award winner Barth’s latest (Where Three Roads Meet, 2005, etc.), a slender collection of linked stories set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Heron Bay Estates is an oddity for the region: a gated community of the Florida type, complete with resident stickers, a clubhouse and a homeowner’s association. Many residents are retirees, some making the slow transition from mansions to either “villas” (horizontal duplexes) or “coach homes” (vertical duplexes), and from there the sad move to assisted living. The best work here is the most conventional. In “Peeping Tom,” the community is in some ways brought together, in some ways sundered, in others simply entertained by the possibility that a stranger may be peering in through windows at bodies and lives that seem to their owners increasingly invisible and unsought-after. Equally strong is “Toga Party,” the account of a lavish elder-bacchanal that ends with a loving couple deciding spontaneously, but with chilling persuasiveness, to commit suicide by asphyxiation in their garage. The book is weakest when the author does what he did more inventively and exuberantly years ago, as in several tales narrated by retired creative-writing professor George Newett that feature Barth’s hallmark postmodern indeterminacy and self-consciousness. There are broad hints that the book is fiction devised by Newett, or devised by Barth devising behind Newett. That’s the sort of fiction the author prefers, we sense, as Newett, comparing his own stories to the “more imaginative perpetrations” of a student, laments that they seem like “pallid rehashes” of Updike, Cheever and O’Hara, “the muted epiphanies and petty nuances of upper-middle-class life.” This anxiety drains some power from his low-key, clear-eyed, battered-but-unbowed portrait of the diminishments and minor pleasures of age. Barth’s prose still has its sinew and snap; he examines near-decrepitude with mordant, rueful wit. No need for narratorial hand-wringing over failure to push the fictional envelope.
Strongest and freshest when it explores the terra infirma of old age.