Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Too Laid-Back

Perhaps Frederick Barthelme's Waveland is not a novel that should be read in an Ohio February, since it's set on the laid-back gulf coast and is scheduled for publication on April 7. But I don't really think it's a novel that should be read at all. I kept going with it because it's well-written. Early on, I loved description like this:
"He was a nasty-looking thing with cartoon hair, stuck up straight as licorice sticks, and a fondness for Hawaiian shirts, of which he seemed to have a good supply. He seemed like trouble to Vaughn, like he could take care of himself and he'd do it at your expense."

But then Vaughn moves back in with his girlfriend Greta to his ex-wife Gail's house after Gail is badly beaten by a boyfriend much too young for her. And it's no big deal. Everyone seems to get along. There are some suggestions of undercurrents, but they're too realistic to be interesting to anyone who doesn't love these characters, and I didn't. When the young boyfriend finally comes over one night, Vaughn sits down and has a talk with him, and then talks to Gail about it:
"If you want to see Tony, that's your business," he said. "He's about half your age."
"Like that matters," she said.
"He's about half your IQ" he said.
"Like that matters," she said.
"So, nothing matters, then" he said.
And that's pretty much the way Vaughn tries to live. He thinks an acceptable life would consist of watching television all day. Even his revelation at the end of the novel, when he imagines
"daily life as an endless succession of such pleasures...the pleasures of toast, the pleasures of hot sunlight, the pleasures of the dark scent of wet dogs, of summer nights, of the crush of sudden thunder, the warmth of winter socks, the surprise of skin indented by furniture" is unsatisfying, at least to me.

Maybe that's the point of this novel--that some folks settle for less. If so, it's just too laid-back and pessimistic for me.


Hugh said...

I agree, there just didn't seem to be a lot at stake in this novel.

lemming said...

I keep reading the "cartoon hair" and "hawaiian shirt collection" descriptions a lot these days; wonder if they all took the same creative writing class?

Jeanne said...

Hugh, I feel less like a Philistine now that you agree.

Lemming, This is obviously trying to be literary fiction, so I wouldn't be surprised if the same creative writing advice had an influence here. Academic writing has gotten pretty homogenized.

Anonymous said...

What a dull as dishwater book this sounds like. Such cynicism is not interesting enough to be sad.