Apr/May 2009

Rider on the Storm

Frederick Barthelme’s sad-sack hero survived Hurricane Katrina, barely

Eric Banks


Waveland is not a place you would want to find yourself. According to adopted son Frederick Barthelme, even before Hurricane Katrina roared over the Mississippi Sound—“a muddy sump you could walk straight out into for a mile and the water wouldn’t rise much above your ankles”—and made a beeline for the hamlet, Waveland was no “beachfront town; it was more like ten miles of down-on-its-luck trailer park. After the storm it was ten miles of debris, snapped phone poles, shredded sheets in the trees.” There isn’t any narrative of redemption and rebuilding here, no rising from the flames: “There wasn’t much to recover since there wasn’t much there any more, just flattened houses and empty lots piled with rubbish and wreckage.” In Barthelme’s novel, his first since 2003’s Elroy Nights, Waveland is like a character who pops into and out of the story, and the author’s antihero could be ventriloquizing his meteorological doppelgänger when he mutters to a companion early on in the book, “We’re debris.”

A middle-aged, downwardly drifting former architect caught in a seriocomic whirl of introspective self-loathing, Vaughn Williams (an allusion perhaps to the composer of A Sea Symphony) is the living aftermath of several cataclysms, Katrina being only one of many. He is riddled with guilt over the death of his father, and his hatred of his successful and smug younger brother sends off hot plumes. In the dissolution of his withering marriage nearly a year earlier, there wasn’t much heat, but even though the divorce is curiously businesslike, it’s no less devastating. His career is in the toilet, and he can’t quite remember how he got from twenty to almost fifty. Much of the novel takes place in the somewhat muddy reaches of Vaughn’s mind, and the distinction between his pained and skewed perspective and the world outside can be difficult to discern. As the book opens, he is puttering around his girlfriend’s house (“a soft place to land if you had to land somewhere”) in padded athletic socks, gorging on a protein-free diet of midafternoon cable, doing Google searches for “husband killers” (almost two million results come up), and taking hot baths, where he pores over Consumer Reports. He’s drawn to a comparison of will-making machines before his attention strays to an article titled “Dangerous Products, a CR investigation.”

In his flailing attempts at midlife self-understanding, Vaughn is a familiar figure in the Barthelme oeuvre, where damaged burnouts grapple with the minor-key disappointments of career, romance, and family in the ruggedly banal wilderness of the strip-mall South. In ten novels and numerous story collections, he’s developed a minimalist approach to literary fiction and made its playing field his home turf. Posthurricane or not, the landscape of Waveland is signature Barthelme: There’s local bar the Hot-2-Trot, the drive-though Krispy Kreme, the Sun Deluxe Chinese restaurant run by two Vietnamese women: “a typical coastal place—a whitewashed repurposed Exxon station with mismatched booths and flat silver ashtrays, the tables covered in strangely textured red plastic, sticky paper napkins, cheap chopsticks, jars of orange sauce on the table, an all-you-can-eat buffet every night, and no customers.” The K-Mart of yore has been replaced by a Target housing a rainbow of iPod accessories. At home, the TV set is always on. Everything in Waveland bubbles along a thin surface, which Barthelme surveys with precision. As in all his work, the very attenuation of the world is paramount, and remaining true to its membranous nature entails a plot that is tight and tersely narrated, with compressed power, yet one so short on development it makes the average New Yorker story seem like 2666. Whiplike plots have never been the point of Barthelme’s writing, though, and Waveland delivers a jolt despite its weak-tea story line.

When Vaughn’s ex-wife, Gail, invites him and his landlady-cum-girlfriend, Greta, to celebrate his birthday at a local casino, Vaughn is shocked to see tony tattooed temporarily on Gail’s neck in ballpoint pen. He is even more surprised when she calls later to tell him she’s been savagely beaten by the new guy; after Vaughn and Greta accompany her to the garishly overlit hospital (“designed by one of the casino architects who had seen too much Gehry and had been reading the magazines too hard”), she asks them to move in with her. Without much thought, they acquiesce. (“It’s a togetherness thing,” Greta says. “The family that saves the ex-wife together . . .”) The ersatz nuclear unit pretty quickly starts to unravel: Gail raises the stakes by asking her ex to remarry her, then Tony shows up one night and Vaughn backs into the fatherly role of talking him away from the scene. (The entire escapade serves as a blunt reminder that you can’t go home again.) Complicating matters, Vaughn’s younger brother, Newton, Gail’s paramour before Vaughn and current text-messaging partner, shows up at her invitation to defuse the crisis. When Newton and Gail take off on what seems like a honeymoon tryout, Vaughn and Greta fly the coop, the unlikely survivors of an unlikely family dynamic.

Families can be fertile grounds of unhappiness, seeded at times with violence real or projected—they don’t mean to fuck you up, but they do. Greta herself has a bloody backstory—before she and Vaughn met at “an Escaped Women’s Slave Narratives lecture at the Gulfport College for the Demented” (“not its real name,” Barthelme helpfully adds), she had been a suspect in the shooting death of her apparently thuggish husband. Now, as the three stand on the deck of the house looking at a bucolic family of ducks, Vaughn recalls Tony Soprano standing by the pool and imagines Greta “probably thinking about poisoning him the way women poisoned men on Court TV.” Throughout the novel, violence is mostly intimated, but it hangs over Waveland like bad weather. Vaughn awakens to find Gail playfully “poking his neck gently with the tip of a pink, resin-coated Japanese carving knife.”

In this novel of crime without punishment and punishment without crime, the violence that trickles out of every situation is hardly escapable. It’s as ever-present as the fifty-two-inch rear-projection TV in Greta’s apartment. (In a nice touch, Barthelme, who once had an unfortunate encounter with the Mississippi Gaming Commission, describes the big screen as something she won at a church raffle and that was donated by one of the casinos.) “Vaughn accepted the television and the television accepted Vaughn,” and why not? The episodes of Engineering Disasters and Matlock and the televised bouts of Ultimate Fighting that pepper the book offer scrolling commentary on Vaughn’s guilty fears and low-key anxieties. His father warned that the world was growing coarser (for Vaughn, “this was a startling proposition, to suggest that the dominant process over time was not development but deterioration”); the TV blare fulfills that prophecy, driving the father’s fears home to the son.

Exes are never ex enough, Vaughn tells himself toward the end of the novel, nor (in a related but different way) are mothers and fathers and brothers: “If you were lucky in the world you built yourself a new life as an adult, complete with friends, lovers, partners, rivals, enemies. You replaced the old people with new people, and your party moved along effortlessly, dancing toward death. If you were unlucky you were left to float on the great angry ocean, never to hear the sound of wood hitting wood in the middle of the night in the darkness of the sea. Something like that.” Philip Larkin might have told Vaughn that the solution is to “get out as early as you can,” but what does it mean to get out, anyway? Vaughn’s experience of love, near love, and failure is too scarring and close to the bone for escape, like Katrina: “Coast people knew all about it,” Barthelme writes,

they had been through it so often; and finally, though it was a little scary, it was still a pleasure to be alive and in the middle of it when the storm bruised up the sky, the light went shadowy, the world turned unearthly colors—green sky, lemon sky—as the storm swirled in, wreaked havoc on a scale that excited, like some fantasy monster, a benevolent and enormous wash cycle, howling into the night, screeching metal torn, any hinged thing banging endlessly, electrical lines snapping and shooting sparks into the weather’s rage. And the natives got the best seats in the house. It made static wonders of the world seem trifling. At least until you had one like Katrina, a killer, a storm of such power that everyone in its path went instantly from excitement to fear, fun to horror. Katrina had been the first hurricane of that sort he’d experienced up close, and the experience had tempered his ardor.

Waveland will no doubt be called Barthelme’s Katrina novel in the same sense that The Emperor’s Children and Falling Man and Netherland are dubbed 9/11 novels. That statement might make its author wince, but it shouldn’t. The storm is more than backdrop or allegory or decisive event; it becomes a virtual coauthor of Vaughn’s confused experience—it constitutes a presence that only gains power in Barthelme’s slyly forceful novel.

Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum.

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