Frederick Barthelme’s “Elroy Nights”

The narrative paints an immediate picture of over-the-hill Elroy in his sockless Cole-Haan shoes. Not sure if I’m buying the premise of the amicable come-and-go separation from his wife. She seems to take his gross indiscretions too lightly. Elroy is the proverbial horny college teacher who lusts after his female students, despite knowing where the boundaries are. He even tries to reverse time by twenty years and hang out like he is a student. We are glad that the author’s skill in describing the foolishness of this sort of typical professor situation raises it above the levels of normal vulgarity.

The Gulf coast descriptions around Biloxi make that bland area of the country quaint, but I’ m not getting a sense of its seedier and more bombed-out-by-poverty side. Elroy’s life seems most comfy, and his high life is insulated to a campus, his spiffy waterfront condo, and his ultra-tolerant wife’s back porch. And of course, women are at every turn.

The errors and obnoxiousness of Elroy’s unbalanced personal life are described with a sort of smug justification. The evoked distaste is hard to pin down, but it reminds me of the way Tony Soprano’s family is portrayed. Like somehow they’re really nice people. I don’t like Elroy or his family. I don’t feel sympathy toward Elroy or Winter or Victor or Edward Weeks or anyone. Nor do I like Freddie, the PYT Elroy has his rather unbelievable professorial fling with.

Barthelme’s writing is what is special in this book. Parts of it are like distilled Updike, nailing things perfectly but sparing us the flood of supporting minutiae. He writes some terrific passages. From the topical allusions to the balcony urge for a cigarette to the riff on internet usage as company (or solace or merely a way to pass time). The “young girl does old teacher” office blow job scene is pretty good too.

At least one conclusion: despite all the dust jacket praise for this one, I think his novel “Tracer” is a helluva lot better.

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