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Chroma by Frederick Barthelme (Simon & Schuster: $14.95; 173 pp.)

May 31, 1987|Slocum Hinerfeld | Hinerfeld is a free-lance writer

"Chroma" is purity and intensity of color, and this is indeed a painterly book. Frederick Barthelme's counterparts in the visual arts are Warhol, Lichtenstein, Wesselman--Pop Art iconographers. Theirs is the art of selectivity, the choice of one object, one smile, one gesture, one phrase to represent all others. They are in search of the prototype that epitomizes the universal.

The Pop artist must Stop, Look and Listen. Barthelme is a good listener. He fixes on what he hears and, in a sense, plays it back for us. Is this art? Of course. There is a difference between reality and Realism. One just occurs; the other is created. These creations are vivid.

Barthelme listens to men and women in conversation. Most of it is extraordinary. Women are trying to get tough. "I don't do girl advice anymore," says one. "That's the way I am now. You'd better learn to work around it." "Settle down," orders another, a Lesbian: "Let's don't O.D. on the compassion thing." Men are shaken. An incestuous brother admits, "Getting her married wasn't such a good idea."

It is possible to imagine this whole book told in Lichtenstein comic-strip paintings. Barthelme's characters are flat, deliberately two-dimensional, conventional rather than individual, engaged in a banal present. They have no sentiment or past history, and their future cannot be imagined.

The bursts of dialogue could fit nicely into the bubbles that serve as quotation marks in comics. Everyone appears close-up, outlined, in the foreground--there is no background. The characters--and their cars--fill the frame. Reading Barthelme is a Day-Glo experience.

There is a whole catalogue of lighting effects in "Chroma": sunlight and moonlight; highlights; fierce contrast between laser-brightness and pitch-dark; striped shadows cast by Levolor blinds. People squint out into the street, and a guy named Ray feels that "Miami Vice" "devalues light."

Like works of Pop Art, these stories are full of brands: Armor-All, Baby Ruth, Cyclone fences, Exxon stations, Danskin, Money and Spin magazines, Pentel, Pez, Pine-Sol, Plexiglas. . . . I could, as Barthelme might say, go on. The point is that we are a society transfixed by advertising; capitalists who are what we buy, stamped with the cachet we can afford.

The brand names lend themselves to games of fantasy and satire. In the middle of the night, a woman who must have as many arms as Shiva brings succor from her bathroom: "a Sucrets, three aspirin, a glass of salt water, a heating pad, a jar of Vicks VapoRub, two Rolaids, a tablespoon of Gelusil, a wet washcloth. . . ." When, in the middle of another night--hardly anyone in this book gets enough sleep--a man stops in "at an off-brand all-night market" for "some liquid refreshment in a sixteen-ounce nonreturnable foam-sleeved bottle," the sudden anonymity is jolting.

Right now, the brand names scintillate on the page. But the effect won't last. What is a D. & H. Red? To quote an S. E. Hinton title, "That Was Then, This Is Now." There will come a time when no man or woman alive will remember the taste of a Baby Ruth.

Meanwhile, the people in this book are hungry. A wandering brother-in-law requests "that chicken thing you do, know the one I'm talking about?" A couple go back to Sears for forgotten popcorn. (Sears is out of popcorn.) A woman driver pulls off the road at a Dairy Queen and says, "Let's get some, want to?" Another woman, looking terrific in the front passenger seat of her husband's lowrider, has a sudden craving for tamales. A gorgeous young wife, discussing her infidelity from the depths of a bubble bath, volunteers to make a cheese ball. "I am dying for cheeseball."

It seems unlikely that this hunger will be assuaged. Life lived on one plane results in nihilism, the sort of emptiness that prompts Peggy Lee to wonder, "Is That All There Is?" Transition between the arts looks easy but isn't. In a strange way, Barthelme's situation is vice versa that of a narrative painter. In that genre of painted emotion, the danger was cloying sweetness. Here it is polyvinyl slickness. In both schools, the art describes the times but cannot transcend them.

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