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A Breathtaking World : THE BROTHERS, By Frederick Barthelme (Viking; $21; 262 pp.)

January 02, 1994|David Shields | David Shields is the author of the novels "Dead Languages" and "Heroes" and a collection of linked stories, "A Handbook for Drowning."

It is often said, with some justification, that most novelists have, finally, only one story to tell and that, in book after book, they ring endless changes on a single essential narrative. Over the last 10 years, Frederick Barthelme has been exploring--with escalating precision, wit and emotional power--the same material (marriage, divorce, middle-aged male ennui), the same territory (Southern suburbia) and similar characters (over-educated protagonists in dead-end jobs and their wry, weary wives, ex-wives and sassy young girlfriends.

Barthelme's new novel, "The Brothers," his seventh book, is told from the astringent point-of-view of Del Tribute, who moves from Houston "to Biloxi because he'd been given a condominium, outright, by his ex-wife's rich father, a going-away present. It was less than a month since the divorce papers were final." When he arrives in Biloxi, Del discovers that his brother, Bud, has left to pursue an exceedingly vague "movie thing" in Los Angeles. Waiting for the tenant of his condominium to move out, Del stays with and comes perilously close to falling in love with Bud's wife, Margaret.

The real romance of the novel, though, is between Del, a 44-year-old stereo salesman, and Jen, a 24-year-old exhibitionist and satirist who surfs Compuserv for mordant wire service stories for "Blood & Slime Weekly," her one-page "Hi-Speed Terrorzine" that she posts around town. Jen is a wonderfully spirited and funny character. In her combination of youth, beauty, sensuality and intelligence she sometimes seems a little too perfect, less a person than a fantasy figure: "She was a soldier in no army, bought no belief system but her own."

When Bud returns from Los Angeles, he and Del and Margaret and even Jen make much ado throughout the rest of the novel about Del's earlier flirtation with Margaret. This proves to be something of a MacGuffin, as the issue is never really explored or resolved but instead only sporadically reiterated, and "The Brothers" is not best read as a thoroughgoing examination of a relationship between two brothers. To the extent that this book is about sibling rivalry, though, it defines that rivalry in starkly Darwinian terms: Del's ascent is Bud's descent. The final image of the book is of Bud, gone slightly mad, "swinging left and right, rocking back and forth, his sheet-wrapped head bobbing like an enormous Q-Tip against the little black sky."

As Del says toward the end of the book, speaking to Jen about the weird wire service articles she culls but referring indirectly to the novel's apparent aesthetic: "There isn't any story. It's not the story. It's just this breathtaking world, that's the point. It's like the story's not important--what's important is the way the world looks. That's what makes you feel the stuff. That's what puts you there."

The novel's true subject is Del's attempt to reclaim his presence in the world by seeing it as breathtaking, as beautiful. In the opening paragraph, "(i)t'd quit raining, and the sunlight was glittery as he crossed the bridge over the bay, but his fellow travelers didn't seem to notice the light." When Del and Jen are at the Singing River Mall, "Del thought it was beautiful. 'Nobody really gets this,' he said. 'Nobody sees how gorgeous this is or knows why.' " At another point, Del says about storms that "(t)hey transform everything instantly. It's like suddenly you're in a different world and the junk of your life slides away and you're left with this rapture, this swoon of well-being and rightness. You get the world in its amazing balance."

This swoon of well-being and rightness--the world in its amazing balance--is what Barthelme's protagonists, from his debut story collection, "Moon Deluxe," to his most recent novel, "Natural Selection," have explicitly been seeking. Del, like the protagonist of Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter"--to which this book bears a slight resemblance--believes that he can be content if he can learn to skate lightly on the surface of things. When he waxes self-righteously philosophical, Jen, his instructor in the ineluctable modality of the visible, teases him back to reality: "Whoa. It's Deepman. Deepman in the window."

Although Del remains somewhat prone--as do so many of Barthelme's protagonists--to curmudgeonly media critiques and Rush Limbaugh-like pinnings for the way things once were and are supposed to be, the Jen-cure, in general, takes. The final two chapters offer an instructive contrast between Del and Bud. Bud defines his own mini-breakdown in terms of the fact that he can no longer respond to "the scent of (a woman) as she passes you in an aisle, the light trace of her skirt grazing your thigh, or her blouse on your forearm as you reach for a magazine."

For this reader, a passionate Barthelme fan, "The Brothers" lacks "Moon Deluxe's" verbal and psychic pyrotechnics, "Two Against One's" emotional rigor, "Natural Selection's" structural perfection. Here, the protagonist's yearnings are granted more than explored. Perhaps familiar chords are getting struck too routinely. Nevertheless, "The Brothers" offers the new and genuine pleasure of seeing a Barthelme protagonist tantalizingly close to celebrating the world. Never has the world, in a Barthelme novel, looked so lovely, more worth celebrating. By the end of the book, "(i)t was one of those nights when the air is like a glove exactly the shape of your body."

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