There is something oddly reassuring about curling up with a novel by Frederick Barthelme — oddly, because in his world we seem to be near the stultifying dead end of normality, a suburban condo development where we find all the noise and kitsch and detritus of our day awash in a soft pastel twilight; reassuring, because the light's lovely, and we're in good company.
In this case, Barthelme's 14th book of fiction, we're in the company of Wallace Webster, who, in his mid-50s, has "retired" from the graphic design firm he started to a condo in Forgetful Bay, off the Texas Gulf Coast, where he spends his time with, in various configurations, his college-age daughter, his much younger former co-worker, his ex-wife (who has taken up with the co-worker's abusive ex), an exotic neighbor with a scary past (whose own daughter shows up for a comically menacing moment of performance art) and sundry inhabitants of the development, mostly women as well.
In short order, bad things begin happening in Forgetful Bay. One neighbor dies in a car wreck. Another, the aforementioned exotic Chantal, is bound with picture hanging wire and painted Yves Klein blue ("which everyone recognizes, at least everyone who ever took a modern art class") by an assailant. Another shoots himself. Others drop dead under suspicious or at least perplexing circumstances. It's all considerably more curious than ominous, a topic of interest and speculation for Wallace and his feminine supporting cast, all of whom seem to share the same dry, ironic style and laconic wit.
Mostly, even as one strange or shocking thing after another happens, Wallace is biding his time — which is what his life, and his story, seems to be about. Whether describing his youth meandering along the Gulf Coast or enjoying the lovely sound of the air conditioner or appreciating the impulse of the saint statue in a neighbor's yard, prizing the "surfaces, the reflection of bright light, the appearance of things, the society of strangers," Wallace is able to make something of whatever there is.
Coming to from his infatuation with Chantal, he thinks of how things might have been if he'd met her 20 or 30 years earlier, "with a whole life out in front of me and the time to do anything, everything, the time to work on it … play a thing out, to see what might come." It's a prospect that now strikes him as "a little silly, something from a fairy tale, a fantasy that we grow up with, that we have something enough and time, whatever that line is. World."
Such a reckoning may be cause for the "sudden-onset melancholy" Wallace is subject to, but in the absence of the fairy tale, he does manage to find the consolations that, short of time, are also world enough.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.