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Wilton Barnhardt Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1960. Education: Michigan State University, B.A. 1982; Oxford University, M. Phil. 1989. Agent: Henry Durlow, Harold Ober and Associates, 425 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Emma Who Saved My Life. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Gospel. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Show World: A Novel. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

* * *

Wilton Barnhardt is an epochal novelist, targeting phases, periods, decades. In his first novel, Emma Who Saved My Life, Gil narrates his twenties-life through the 1970s (Barnhardt was born in 1960, so these historical backdrops are archival, not personal). There is a beginning chapter which grounds time present in Evanston, post-1984 (although Barnhardt stays well away from the resonances of that year) then successive chapters devoted to his New York years from 1974 through 1983. Gil fled college for New York, and an acting career. He moves in with Lisa, a girl he had a crush on in college, and her unusual friend Emma, whom he falls in love with as well.

This is a narrated book, with characters who are friends because they tell funny stories about themselves to each other. Gil's story is about trying to rise up through menial roles and depressing insights into the theatre world. We get a thorough review of Brooklyn life which is balanced between fun and depression. Gil eventually reaches a level of success which his friends credit, but he also realizes that he is not a great talent, which turns him back home.

Part of the novel's quality is its durable self-regulation. Gil finds himself pursued by a woman well beyond his usual company, who does everything thoroughly and stylishly. He doesn't understand her interest in him, but it doesn't destabilize him either. At a party she gives, he meets an old boyfriend of hers she has invited as well, who makes him see that his time is nearly up. In one of the most somber points in the book, Gil finds out from him that Connie has herpes. Gil doesn't pretend it doesn't hurt him, but he also tells us that it formalizes his nonsexual friendship with Emma.

Finally, Gil does not chew the curtains as he realizes he is only acting at acting. He takes one last look at New York with Emma, and concludes back in the present time of the book's composition, as he and his wife wait for their baby in Evanston.

One could not anticipate the gargantuan Gospel from anything Barnhardt had written, yet it too can be seen as a chronicle of an epoch, of the Gulf War period as the "End Times" prophesied by all the religions of Abraham. Lucy Dantan is a graduate student in theology at the University of Chicago. The chair of her department sends her to Oxford (there are no fellow faculty he would trust) to bring back Dr. O'Hanrahan, an emeritus faculty and former chair whose drinking and quixotic scholarship threatens the reputation of his department. O'Hanrahan is on the trail of the lost gospel of Matthias. Religious, political, and academic agents follow him (and her) to Oxford, County Antrim, Florence, Assisi, Rome, Puglia, Athens, Holy Mt. Athos, Piraeus, Jerusalem, Aswan, the Nile, Khartoum, Gonder, Addis Ababa, and The Promised Land (a PTL-type college-hospital-retirement village in Philadelphia, Louisiana). Each group chasing them seeks the lost gospel to change the world for the last time. Yet the individual scholars and learned theologians surrounded by vested interests are mostly full of concern and forgiveness for each other. Lucy and O'Hanrahan gradually come to trust in each other.

Beginning the novel, and interspersed within these chapters, are sections of the lost gospel, a homely and despairing account of his trial of faith the disciple Matthias (who replaced Judas) dictates to be sent to his brother Josephus.

A recurring narrative device of a divine voice speaking back to Lucy and O'Hanrahan's silent ruminations, which at times runs the danger of descending into the George Burns "Oh God" shtick, becomes impressive at the end. Although there are erudite footnotes to Matthias's gospel detailing the Church's rewriting of Sophia, the female principle of wisdom, into the (male) Holy Spirit, and the novel's dedication to Barnhardt's mother and two other female relatives at the beginning, it is not until the end of this long novel that we fully understand that it is Sophia (not the Father) whose voice they hear.

Show World, Barnhardt's latest novel, features the 1990s, when the economy has insured that those usually hired last will be first: Humanities majors are perfect for the worlds of Washington and Hollywood, where nothing is made, everything is public, hyped, shown. Samantha Flint escapes Missouri by going to Smith College, remaking herself. Her college roommate Mimi Mohr approves her skeptical understanding of public identities, and introduces her to the spectacle of Manhattan. Samantha follows her there after graduating, entering the world of public relations.

A contact she makes with a senator at a charity affair in New York gets too much publicity for her client, embarrassing her boss who sent her there in her place, but the senator makes her his legislative director after she has served on his staff a few years in Washington. When he announces his retirement, she realizes she can not give up the public power, and she signs on as legislative director for the man who wins his seat, a right-wing yahoo whose signature causes against homosexual rights and other liberal interests are compromised by his son's accidental death within an autoerotic cult at military school.

When her senator ignores her advice for a speech that could transcend his difficulties, she gives him over to the scandal press, which finishes her in Washington. She follows Mimi out to Hollywood, but her growing dependence on drugs matches the destructive and suicidal culture of Hollywood agency culture. She marries a client of Mimi's as a cover for his homosexuality, but she cares as little for him as anyone else. When her husband dies in a homosexual orgy in a Las Vegas hotel, she becomes the hunted victim of the public attention she has managed throughout her life, and her body finally detonates under the conflicting effects of the drugs she uses. Before it chronicles Samantha's life beginning at Smith in 1978, the novel began with a note from Samantha to Mimi dated 1998, mailing her the file of everything she has ever written, and it effectively closes with an essay dated 1978, which she decided not to present to her college writing class as too self-revelatory: a pastoral afternoon playing as hard as she can with her rural cousins, holding hands.

—William Johnsen

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