In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, mostly retired architect Vaughn Williams, who is beset by the routine but no less troubling difficulties of late midlife, is doing what he can to remain, as he says, "viable". He scans the channels, reads newspapers and blogs online, Googles practically everything, teaches an occasional class at the local junior college, and worries perhaps overmuch about his late father. When his ex-wife, Gail, is assaulted by her hot-tempered new boyfriend, she asks him and his landlady/girlfriend, Greta, to move in with her. Perhaps a little too cavalierly, they agree, and complications distinctly Barthelme-esque follow, including manly confrontations with the perp, lamentations of his father's life and death, casual moonlight drives, gambling for money, adults playing with trains, and the eventual untimely arrival of Vaughn's annoyingly successful younger brother, followed closely by Vaughn's ex-wife's invitation to remarry.
The tattered landscape of the post-hurricane Gulf Coast is the perfect analogue for these catastrophically out-of-order lives, and in this setting the players work into and out of almost all their troubles. In the process, and en route to a satisfying set of resolutions, Barthelme's acute eye and subtle wit uncover and autopsy an inner landscape of mortality, love, regret, and redemption. The result is his most emotionally resonant work of fiction yet - and a new reason to celebrate him as an American master.
©2009 Frederick Barthelme (P)2011 Audible, Inc.
"In this powerfully atmospheric story of loneliness and risk, Barthelme slyly conceals emotional and philosophical intensity beneath the peculiarity of circumstance, the dazzle of hilarious repartee, and the luster of gorgeous prose." (Booklist)
I went from not being able to get into it to disliking the characters. I think they are intended as "quirky", though came across as irritatingly stock to me.
The synopsis looked promising, and the sample was okay, so I went ahead and bought the book. Narration isn't bad, and not great, just sort of ... there, so I won't pan the guy for this one not working out.
I so wanted to like this novel. I grew up in Mississippi, went to school there, most of my family is still there. More significantly, I traveled with a charity in which I've been involved from Mobile, AL to Waveland less than a week after Katrina to deliver a new police car to the Waveland police department and a new fire truck for Waveland's fire station. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in NYC after 9/11. I never knew what an impact that trip would have. To see the complete destruction of an entire town and every bit of its infrastructure (power, water, phone lines, etc.), to feel the desolation of a town that was completely wiped off the map with nothing standing but flagpoles and to hear inside you the distant screams of the folks who died, is life-altering.
I made it through 4 hours of this novel. I threatened to quit on numerous occasions when I developed bouts of nausea which may or may not be attributed to this book. I know the cars are all there in terms of structure, development of characters, subtext and details. There are passages of beautiful prose and near-perfect paintings of life along the Gulf in the days after Katrina. The protagonist's internal wonderings are evocative of William Faulkner's best work.
And yet the train never made it out of the station for me. I trudged well over halfway through and I hadn't seen a redeeming quality in any of the 5 characters, and did not have the slightest spark of a connection with the protagonist. In fact, I found him quite pathetic. I cannot bring myself to invest another 2 hours and 42 minutes of my time listening to this audiobook. The dialogue oftentimes seemed unrealistic and/or trite and the plot was nonexistent (not that plot is a necessity for "literature").
The protagonist is Larry Loser or Walt Whiner, a part-time instructor of architecture at a local community college whose wish is to work as a gas station attendant so he won't have to worry about anything except pumping gas.
For his girlfriend, who he likes because she looks "rode hard and put up wet," this brings to her mind a vivid memory, which she shares with Loser, of the sex she had with a guy she had just met in a stall at a gas station. This same girlfriend's husband died 5 years ago from a .22 bullet point blank in the head while he slept. She was accused but police found "insufficient evidence" that she killed him.
His ex-wife is lonely and desperate, seeking rejuvenation and sex with a younger guy who abuses her. I could not blame her for wanting to get the hell away from Loser but in my last charge into the coalmines of this novel she invited him back. For that, I believe she is legally insane.
If you've ever read Faulkner's "Wild Palms," the "Waveland" dialogue is similar to Faulkner's in being seemingly incessant, annoying and incredible as that had by Faulkner's Harry (another loser) and Charlotte. It appeared though with Faulkner that he was aiming at sharing with the reader with state of mind of Harry or Charlotte (as strange as that may have been). In "Waveland," you get from the girlfriend gems like "that's a double duh" and "let's get down to brass tacks."
I am all for descriptions to paint the picture, establish the mood, feel for the character through the details. But, for example, to show that Loser neglected his father in his dying days and the result of that neglect, is it really necessary to harp on about the toilet habits and experience of the invalid elderly man:
"On this occasion, he managed to shit and on inspection saw that the shit was
well-formed, well-covered and cleanly off him. Buoyed by his success, he wiped his bottom several times with the toilet paper flushing the toilet after each pass and then without getting off the toilet wet a washcloth and passed the wet cloth between his legs. It burned his skin but after a couple of attempts the cloth emerged unsoiled and he returned it to the sink under the running water."
After this, it was all I could do to continue. "Buoyed"??
Life is hard enough without spending hours reading about someone else's crap without the slightest hint of any return for the investment.
The narrator added to the humdrum and mispronounced place names. Pass Christian is Pass "Christi-ANN" and Biloxi is NOT "Bee-LOCKS-ee," more like "Be-lux-EE" or sometimes "Be-locks-EE."
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