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A Minimalist Author Among the Magnolias

August 20, 1986|DANIEL AKST | Times Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG, Miss. — A visitor having dinner with Frederick Barthelme, bard of suburban disconnectedness, has driven out from New Orleans to an obscure college town bristling with fast-food signs, onto a campus whose students can't seem to say where the English department is. At the restaurant, the waitress says the special is a pasta dish called Frank.

This ought to be in a Frederick Barthelme story, but it's not. It's just something that happened in the place where Barthelme lives, a world much like the one he describes with such exquisite economy in two cinematic novels and a series of stories on the theme of human incompatibility.

That world is loosely the New South, but the landscape could be anywhere. With enormous wit, the 42-year-old Barthelme has managed to capture contemporary life for the growing numbers of Americans who live in the vast and homogenous suburb the nation seems intent on becoming.

He has also captured critical attention (both good and bad) as a leading exponent of what has come to be called minimalist fiction, and now his work is likely to be filmed. Barthelme has turned his novel "Second Marriage" into a screenplay for 20th Century Fox, and has done the same for his other novel, "Tracer," for Wolfgang Films, an offshoot of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

Those novels, and the stories he frequently publishes in the New Yorker, depict a land of cable television and plentiful parking whose denizens are so mobile they bounce off one another like pinballs with the thinnest bands of Velcro tacked on. They're always liable to jump into the Honda and drive over to the MiniMart. Barthelme's work is littered with brand-name detritus: Burger Kings and Stroh's appear as often as they do in the San Fernando Valley.

Barthelme once said he doesn't want anything in his stories that you can't buy at a 7-Eleven, but he insists his fiction is not intended as an attack on such things.

"One of my major dissatisfactions with the reviewing of my work is that it assumes a critique," he said, sipping the first of perhaps a dozen Diet Cokes in a rambling interview that started at his kitchen table. "I think there are pleasures to be had in barbecued chicken and white bread."

So do his characters, who almost never eat vegetables but can be moved to romance by the vista of an empty parking lot at dusk.

A Battle of Sexes

Most of all, though, Barthelme's fictional world is one in which men and women can't get along. The men are either ciphers or silly, and the women, scarred and dissatisfied, tend to prefer one another. Barthelme, it turns out, can't blame them.

"In bald terms, I'm much fonder of women as people than men," he said. "The men are taking a hit. I see these people as John Wayne figures, or maybe Gary Cooper would be better. One thing they've learned, and they've learned it from the women in the stories, is to endure."

Whether Barthelme's fiction endures remains to be seen, but he is gaining notoriety now after years in the shadow of his older brother, Donald, whom Frederick calls his "first and principal teacher," and whose influence lingers faintly in his work, although Donald Barthelme's stately surrealism is replaced in his brother's work by a kind of literary superrealism, like the painters who render their surroundings with such garish fidelity.

Critics have reacted to Frederick Barthelme with everything from animosity to delight, but for better or worse he is already being named among a new breed of Southern writers, and also amid a group of short story specialists like Anne Beattie, Mary Robison and Raymond Carver, who are known for their spare and often bleak portrayal of human relationships.

Hackles Raised

These writers have raised some hackles. Detractors complain that their work is lifeless and bloodless, without soul or expression. Novelist Don DeLillo has called it "around the house and in the yard" fiction, and the late John Gardner complained that it "celebrates ideas no father would wittingly teach his children."

To his detractors, Barthelme's fictional universe could be summed up by the main character of his novel "Second Marriage," when the wife demands that her husband say what he means.

"I do," Henry replies. "I just don't mean much."

But to others, Barthelme's stories mean a great deal. Asserts Donald Barthelme, a big fan of his brother's work, "Behind the Day-Glo and McDonald's, there's still Heidegger and Pollock. They may not announce themselves, but they're still there."

However, Barthelme does mean to be funny--slapstick, satirical, and even tragicomic. Consider the beginning of "Rain Check," the last story in the collection entitled "Moon Deluxe":

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