Prize-winning short-fiction author Bartelmay debuts with literary fiction unraveling the fate of six snakebit souls.
The setting is Middleville, near Peoria, Ill., doubtless symbolic for American life circa 1950-2000. Chic Waldbeeser is the younger son in a dysfunctional family. Diane von Schmidt is a teacher’s daughter. In 1950, the two marry immediately after high school, honeymoon clumsily in Florida and settle down to be supported by Chic’s employment in a pumpkin processing plant. Chic’s father, a traumatized World War I veteran, had committed suicide. Chic’s brother, Buddy, turned 18, left home and became an itinerant coin dealer. Their detached mother lurks in Florida. Chic is emotionally stunted, unambitious, befuddled by reality and not very smart. Diane is jealous of Lijy, Buddy’s wife, an Indian woman from California, her resentment sparked by Chic’s undisguised admiration of Lijy’s sensuality. Chic and Diane produce a prodigy son, whom neither parent understands. Still a child, the son drowns. Diane falls into depression, comforted by food and Norman Vincent Peale. Sexually naïve and stymied Chic, lonely and introverted, stumbles through a life soon fractured when Lijy has an affair, becomes pregnant and asks Chic to accept responsibility, foolishly believing Buddy will be more forgiving. The narrative flits back and forth in time, weaving in the saga of Buddy and Lijy, whose marriage collapses and then reforms after they open a health-food store and massage salon. Into the Middleville mess drop Green Geneseo and Mary Norwood. Green, a retired Las Vegas bank teller, fancies himself a bookie. Mary, married multiple times, has been a pool hustler and barmaid. Both want someone to take care of them; neither can care for the other; and Chic is soon caught up in their mutual misery. Symbolism and metaphor are rife as the story unfolds, and only Buddy, Lijy and their son lurch toward happiness, while Chic remains mired in existential crisis, too ignorant to understand and too inept to overcome.
"Lives of quiet desperation"—or a literary study of hapless people living unhappy lives.