Down and out hubbie goes to Ft. Myers on Florida’s west coast, or more specifically to some sort of undeveloped and run-down cracker Gulfcoastal area. There are shitty motels and a pastoral beach where the wind is wild and cows can show up. The community has a few strange souls with dangerous idiosyncrasies: deranged Viet Vet, pancake fetishist, man named Minnie. Dueling divorcee’s can drive cars fast and do stunt tricks on the highway with immunity. The convenience store sells fried chicken breasts plopped on a slice of white bread. We are not sure why the hubbie narrator went there. The divorcing wife shows up for some reason. Hubbie meanwhile is tagging her sister, who runs the Seaside motel and is a lusty well-travelled gal. The kinky sex acts we imagine that transpire are left ambiguous, a nice writing touch and maybe a relief too. Three bottles of wine will of course produce a menage á trois. A wrecked airplane in the woods has been converted into a private retreat with all the trimmings of an efficiency. Characters wander from the shitty motel and go to there like an off-stage waiting area. Rain falls and pings against the fuselage. We think at first the town of Obalisque up the road will be like luxury land, but it’s a dump too. The best of this stuff is pure postmodern imagination, not dissimilar to late brother Donald’s. With an accompanying succinct prose style and a bagful of adept descriptions and imagery, Barthelme produced a terrific book. It’s my favorite of all his stuff.
ps- A subtitle of this novella could be “Or This is Americana, Sad to Say.”
The clerk at B&N was about my age. Her eyes bulged behind her glasses when I asked if the store had a copy of this book. The computer said it did, so she took me on a walking tour trying to find it.
“I haven’t heard anyone mention that title in forty years.”
I wondered if the clerk’s mom had kept a copy hidden in her nightstand as mine did back in the mid-1950s when this bombshell book came out. Maybe she too snuck a look for the dirty parts.
The clerk didn’t find the book, which I ordered later from Amazon. She was polite and never asked why the hell I would want such a thing. You know, being a middle-aged man and all. I’m not sure I had an answer on the ready. I guess I could say that the book stands in time as a period piece and as a breakthrough in women’s freedom to express, and so forth. Or I could have said I’m interested in all fiction and for some reason I’m in the mood to read some soapy pulpy stuff. Presented in an accomplished novelistic way, of course. Yeah. I wanted to see how the best of breed managed it.
Keeping up with the cast of characters made it a slow read at first. The writing is solid and unpretentious, functional. I never found it sappy like a lot of that era’s fiction. Even so, the episodes tend to stretch the obvious and telegraph themselves. I began to skim in the last one-third. The characters perpetrate about every human foible you can think of. The dirty parts are far from dirty anymore; they have a quaint memorableness to them.
The author believed in her novel enough to risk becoming a pariah and eventually she ruined her liver over it. I defer to the more conscientiously written reviews out there and especially to the Vanity Fair piece on Grace Metalious, a pretty interesting read.
Unlike the hackneyed writing sometimes seen in quick-study brochures, it’s discerning, succinct, and a model of organized writing.
Old tech writers (I’m one) can appreciate it. The text isn’t clogged with dense scholastic theory. It’s open-aired and practical. When the reader spots something in the novel itself, the notes are confirming.
At 115 pages and 8 bucks from a second-hand book dealer, mine is the 1967 original assembled by two professors, Doctors Carey & Roberts. Those guys must have spent many a long day and night in offices and taverns figuring out how they would distill the huge book into pony notes. Marianne Sturman later added short essay-like pieces on theme, structure, characters, etc.
The pieces instruct, in the spirit of the book itself:
“An outstanding feature of Tolstoy’s writing is that his characters are always “becoming” and not just “being.” Even in static chapters where there is little external action, the characters are changing … Tolstoy can make unusual dramatic material out of essentially undramatic stuff.”
* Follow-up post several days later: After reading sections of the Cliff’s, I picked up where I left off. It started with a chapter about a hounds chase at the Roskov estate. Nikolai is in his element and has his veteran dog ready to show how good they are. He seeks the target away from the pack. Meanwhile hundreds of other dogs and multiple horseback riders go after the wolves…not foxes, not hares — not a British chase, a Russian one. Rostov has his chance and seems to have triumphed but the wolf eludes him and his hound. The property’s wrangler, the giant Danilo, wraps up the wolf instead.