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SHOW WORLD by Wilton Barnhardt


by Wilton Barnhardt

Pub Date: July 30th, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-18684-3
Publisher: St. Martin's

The story of a hopeful young woman’s disillusioning descent through the worlds of academe, politics, and film makes for a curious hybrid that falls awkwardly between the romantic comedy of Barnhardt’s ingratiating first novel (Emma Who Saved My Life, 1989) and the baroque overkill that flattened his second (Gospel, 1993) Samantha Flint (whose notebooks record her story) arrives at Smith College in 1978 from Missouri, a self-conscious thorn among the pampered, whiny roses whose company she seeks. Sam plans to write “the Great American Working Woman’s Novel,” but instead drifts into the orbit of flamboyant “Mimi” Mohr, a go-getter who—ll eventually prosper as a “manager” of movie stars’ careers. After college, Sam works for a moderate Republican Senator, then joins the staff of his calculating reactionary colleague (whom she double-crosses when the sleazy Senator Shanker uses his son’s suicide for political gain). Just ahead are flings with alcohol, psychoanalysis, marriage to a “gay boytoy” actor who’s done in by his fondness for “kinky sexplay,” and exploratory lesbian sex—all as part of a numbed quest for “something passionate that would obliterate the drudgery, the wearisome effort her life had become.” Barnhardt’s prose seldom rises to subtler or more specific levels, and his lumpy plot unwisely evokes memories of both Candy and Valley of the Dolls; Sam isn’t a sufficiently credible or interesting character. There are clever inventions (the lyrics to the hit single “Inside You” are a rude treat) and a few vivid scenes (Sam’s sad-funny reunion with her father, living in TV-drugged bliss with his middle-aged girlfriend at the Paradise Acres trailer park is a comic gem). But the novel takes aim at too many easy targets and never reconciles its campy melodrama with the coming-of-age story we—re prepared to expect. Barnhardt is better than this. (Author tour)