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Frederick Barthelme Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Houston, Texas, 1943; brother of the writer Donald Barthelme. Education: Tulane University, New Orleans, 1961-62; University of Houston, 1962-65, 1966-67; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (teaching fellow; Coleman Prose award, 1977), 1976-77, M.A. 1977. Career: Architectural draftsman, Jerome Oddo and Associates, and Kenneth E. Bentsen Associates, both Houston, 1965-66; exhibition organizer, St. Thomas University, Houston, 1966-67; assistant to director, Kornblee Gallery, New York, 1967-68; creative director, BMA Advertising, Houston, 1971-73; senior writer, GDL & W Advertising, Houston, 1973-76. Since 1977 professor of English, director of the Center for Writers, and editor of Mississippi Review, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg. Visual artist: exhibitions at galleries in Houston, Norman, Oklahoma, New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Buenos Aires, and Oberlin, Ohio, 1965-74. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1979; University of Southern Mississippi research grant, 1980.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

War and War. New York, Doubleday, 1971.

Second Marriage. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984; London, Dent, 1985.

Tracer. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985; London, Dent, 1986.

Two Against One. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988;London, Viking, 1989.

Natural Selection. New York, Viking, 1990.

The Brothers. New York, Viking, 1993.

Painted Desert. New York, Viking, 1995.

Bob the Gambler. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Short Stories

Rangoon. New York, Winter House, 1970.

Moon Deluxe. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1983; London, Penguin, 1984.

Chroma and Other Stories. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987;London, Penguin, 1989.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Cooker," in New Yorker, 10 August 1987.

"Law of Averages," in New Yorker, 5 October 1987.

"Shopgirls," in Esquire (Japanese edition, Tokyo), August 1988.

"War with Japan," in New Yorker, 12 December 1988.

"Driver," in New American Short Stories 2, edited by Gloria Norris. New York, New American Library, 1989.

"With Ray and Judy," in New Yorker, 24 April 1989.

"Domestic," in Fiction of the Eighties, edited by Gibbons and Hahn, Chicago, TriQuarterly, 1990.

"The Philosophers," in Boston Globe Magazine, 22 July 1990.

"Margaret and Bud," in New Yorker, 15 May 1991.

"Jackpot," in Frank Magazine, 1992.

"Retreat," in Epoch, 1993.

Other

Trip (text), photographs by Susan Lipper. New York, Powerhouse, 1999.

Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss (with StevenBarthelme). Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

* * *

Frederick Barthelme's early fiction—Rangoon and War and War—is self-consciously experimental, overly influenced (and greatly overshadowed) by the far more successful work of writers such as his older brother Donald. It was not until more than a decade later, in the 17 stories that comprise Moon Deluxe, that he would begin writing the kind of fiction that would establish him as one of the most interesting of contemporary American writers.

Barthelme's stories have the familiar look of the real world; they are meticulously detailed in such matters as the make and color of the cars the characters drive, the brand names of the products they buy, the names of the places where they live and the restaurants where they eat. On the other hand, they are eerily vague and indistinct about such matters as their location (the general setting is the Sun Belt states along the Gulf Coast), background information about the characters' jobs, their past—sometimes even their own names. Barthelme's fictional world is filled with real objects but empty of meaningful experience; his characters talk about things, but seldom about things that matter.

The stories are typically narrated in present tense by men in their late thirties, either single or divorced, who live alone. Like Camus's Meursault, they report events in a detached, disengaged, almost affectless manner. (Several of the stories are told in second person, which distances the narrator even from himself.) Passive individuals, these men are watchers rather than doers; it is usually the women who are the aggressors, the men responding almost willy-nilly to their advances. These characters reveal so little of their real selves that they are virtually interchangeable from one story to another.

The emptiness of the characters' lives, and the dead tone in which the tales are narrated, combine to make a powerful statement about the loneliness that infects the lives of many who inhabit the modern shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and singles apartment complexes of contemporary suburban America. However, by presenting incidents and dialogue with a decidedly comic touch, Barthelme avoids making his stories as bleak as his characters' lives. The stories also transmit a strong sense of expectation, an unsettling feeling that something dramatic is about to happen (it seldom does). In Moon Deluxe the dull and the routine seem charged with mystery.

Second Marriage is a brilliant comedy of contemporary social and sexual manners, rich in offbeat characters and wickedly funny dialogue. The novel tells the story of a man named Henry (no last name) whose ex-wife Clare moves in with him and his current wife Theo. The two women soon discover they like each other more than they like Henry, so they ask him to move out. The book records with wry humor his goofy experiences following his eviction by his wives.

Henry is in many ways a typical Barthelme character: decent but ineffectual, he finds himself pushed aside, a casualty of the sexual revolution; bewildered, he passes the time watching TV, vacuuming his apartment, cleaning the refrigerator, aimlessly reading magazine articles he doesn't understand. One activity that usually rouses him from his torpor is eating, a favorite pastime for all of Barthelme's characters. None of them especially savors food; going out to eat is simply something to do, a safe way of filling up time, though the fast food they routinely consume is as lacking in nutrition as the tentative relationships they stumble in and out of.

Martin, the narrator of Tracer, moves into the Florida motel-condo operated by his wife Alex's sister Dominica following the breakup of his marriage. He is soon sleeping with Dominica, which complicates matters when both Alex and Dominica's estranged husband Mel show up. Out of this tangled web of relationships Barthelme fashions another of his quirky comedies of modern life.

Tracer is rich in details, incidents, and dialogue which underscore Barthelme's favorite themes of displacement and failed connections. The central symbol of the novel is a P-38 Night Fighter plane which, like Martin, has come to rest on Dominica's property like a lost bird. The dialogue, composed largely of humorous yet pointless monologues, conversational non-sequiturs, and misunderstood statements, is as disconnected as the characters' lives. Even incidents (such as the bizarre episode involving a stranger who takes out a gun and inexplicably begins shooting at the P-38) seem to have become unglued from any sort of logical context.

Two Against One presents another familiar Barthelme triangle. Following a six-month separation, Elise returns to husband Edward on his 40th birthday with a novel suggestion: she wishes to invite her former lover Roscoe, whose wife has been killed in a traffic accident, to move in with the two of them. Sex is not the motivating factor; some sort of connection is. Like the rest of Barthelme's aimless and confused heroes, Edward is uncertain what he should do; though not entirely opposed to the idea, he does not know whether he likes it either.

Like Tracer, Two Against One moves beyond the spare, elliptical quality of Barthelme's earlier fiction. The characters are also portrayed with more empathy, less scorn. They may not have any of the answers, but in contrast to many of their earlier counterparts, they are at least yearning for answers and taking tentative (albeit unorthodox) steps towards finding them.

The aimlessness that afflicts Barthelme's characters, and that is often the source of much of the humor in his books, takes on a decidedly darker hue in Natural Selection. Peter Wexler concludes that he is not terribly happy in his marriage to his second wife, Lily. Wandering the malls and haphazardly driving the freeways temporarily provides a comforting outlet for his uneasiness, as these activities commonly do for Barthelme's characters. But this time the resolution of his marital dilemma comes unexpectedly: in the final scene of the novel, a late-night drive on the freeway with his wife results in a fatal traffic accident. Thus the heartbreak that usually lurks just beneath the comic surface in Barthelme's novels surfaces with sudden impact.

Barthelme is a poet of the mundane who combines the satirist's knack for exposing the ridiculous in contemporary society with a photographer's ability to capture the quotidian details of everyday life. His fiction, situated somewhere between good-humored social satire and documentary realism, both captures the absurdity and celebrates the wonder of the ordinary.

During the late 1990s, he produced two additional works—a novel and a work of narrative nonfiction—that amply illustrate the close relation between the ordinary and extraordinary in the world of Barthelme. Bob the Gambler concerns a Texas architect, Ray Kaiser, drawn into the world of Gulf Coast casinos. For him, losing becomes not a tragedy but a kind of adventure: "I sort of felt it was more exhilarating to lose a lot than to win a little. Losing meant you had to play more, try harder." Barthelme's acquaintance with his subject matter was far more than academic, as revealed in Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, cowritten with brother Steven (And He Tells the Horse the Whole Story). In the course of researching Bob the Gambler, Barthelme visited a number of casinos; and following the death of their parents, as the Barthelmes reveal, both became full-fledged gambling addicts who "would have been willing to win, but … were content to lose." The owners of the Grand Casino in Gulfport, Mississippi, however, did not buy this account: they filed suit against the Barthelmes for conspiring with a blackjack dealer to rig games. Indicted in September 1997, the brothers faced up to two years in prison before the Mississippi State Circuit Court dismissed the charges in August 1999.

—David Geherin

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