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For all its metafictional winks and high-jinks, Barth's latest tome fails to transcend its (ironically intended) self-description as "a novel in which next to nothing happens beyond an interminably pregnant couple's swapping stories." No ordinary couple, Peter and Katherine Sagamore are "the favored of the fucking earth" and their storytelling is of course meant to be extraordinary as well. With Katherine ready to pop, this golden duo cruise the Chesapeake Bay under sail, and without benefit of motor. Almost 40, librarian Katherine, who's also founder of the American Society for the Preservation of Storytelling (ASPS), hopes to bring her writer-husband out of his long slump. Celebrated for his early books, he's written himself into a minimalist dead-end; his latest stories consist of nothing but their one-word titles. "Sailing whither listeth wind and tide," these children of the Eastern Shore--his background's prole, hers horsy--recount their personal histories, with emphasis on the sordid stuff, such as Katherine's anal rape by her first husband, himself a repressed homosexual congressman. Before Katherine's water breaks, she and Peter meet up with some unlikely fellow travellers: a Greek couple who fancy themselves--and seem to be--Odysseus and Nausicaa; a salty seaman named Don Quicksoat; and a former CIA agent and his literature-prof wife who drift in from Barth's last novel, Sabbatical, and recycle some of its complex spy plot. This "narrative scavenger hunt" also includes long digressions on the "stars" by which both Barth and Peter steer: Twain, Cervantes, and Homer. Katherine's lesbian friend, and former lover, May Jump, hops aboard to update us on Scheherazade, another inspiration for these interminable "tidewater tales." "Et cetera" (to quote Barth's favored tag here). Rudderless fiction that runs aground too often.
Pub Date: June 22nd, 1987
ISBN: 080185556X
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1987


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