Monday, January 26, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "A Thing of Chance" (on Frederick Barthelme's There Must Be Some Mistake)

a thing of chance
by Douglas Messerli

Frederick Barthelme There Must Be Some Mistake (New York: Little, Brown, 2014)

Living in Kemah, Texas at the edge of Forgetful Bay, Wallace Webster suddenly discovers himself overwhelmed by death. Although he is only in his late 50s, Webster has been “let-go” from his job as an advertising designer. And a few years earlier, he divorced his second wife, Diane. His daughter, Morgan, is off to college in nearby Houston, and Webster, often left alone, stays up nights to watch Scandinavian crime dramas on DVD. It probably doesn’t help that he is fascinated by all things decaying and tacky, a world on the underside of the American belly which reveals what used to be called the American Dream in absolute decay. The people who surround him are, for the most part, misplaced individuals, many of whom have come to Forgetful Bay to…well, to forget, yes, but also because they seem to have no place else to go. The not so glamorous views of the Bay, the numerous run-down oyster houses and bars—including the outlandish Velodrome, atop which is attached, like an alien space-ship which crashed into the roof of the concrete monstrosity, a “small Airstream trailer.” The bar and restaurant is owned by Webster’s neighborly condominium owner Chantal, who, along with a former co-worker, Jilly, quickly becomes one of the coterie surrounding the sexually worn-out once-time artist. In short, Webster is suffering from what used to be described as a mid-life crisis, as he now, trying to outwit death, passively goes through the motions of living without much of vision of what might lay ahead.
     If this down-and-out “hero’s” mind is occupied with presages of destruction and death, moreover, it doesn’t help that his condominium has suddenly been hit by a series of inexplicable attacks, violence, and deaths. Chantal has been attacked by a figure attempting to paint her “Yves Klein blue.” Another neighbor, Forest Ng,” dies in a car crash. A man Webster hardly knows, former Homeowner Association president, Duncan Parker, stops by to confess to Webster that he has fallen in love with another woman and is desperate to find a way out of his marriage to his gigantically-framed wife; soon after Parker seemingly commits suicide. Or was it suicide? Some of the condominium members ponder the possibility of murder, particularly when Parker’s giantess wife disappears on a cruise-ship voyage to Canada.
     Meanwhile, Webster’s new friend-lover, Chantal admits she has killed one of her former husbands, but, apparently, has gotten away with the murder; she casually mentions that she also attempted to kill another of her mates. Her daughter, Tinker, suddenly shows up; the heavily tattooed girl, a wannabe performance artist, giggles through lunch with her mother about her punishment of a man who has tried to sexually accost her, who she threatened to expose and from whom she stole his car. Webster, at heart more conventional than he imagines himself to be, is taken aback, and reconsiders his friendship with the life-hardened Chantal, but is unable to imagine an easy way of extracting himself from their relationship. Indeed, if there is one unifying pattern in Webster’s life, it is that he seeks, time and again, the easy way out.

     Things become even more complicated and less simple when another homeowner, Oscar Peterson (no relation to the famous jazz pianist) is found dead in a car still parked in his garage. When Chantal admits that she has had a serious relationship with Peterson, everything begins to link up in the hyper-active minds of other condominium owners, particularly the new HOA president, Bernadette Loo, and Jean Darling, a police detective who owns one of the units. And everything goes haywire when, at a meeting of the homeowners held to discuss the events, an elderly attendee has a heart attack!

     As if the “easy-going” Webster needs anything more in his suddenly complex life, his former wife, Diane, threatens to move back to Forgetful Bay with her new lover Cal, who just happens to be Webster’s closest friend, Jilly’s, ex-husband—a shifty character who she’s terrified of again encountering and who has recently been charged for having sex with an underage girl.
      Frederick Barthelme’s fiction, itself a kind of easy-going narrative that rambles through the detritus of semi-urban American life it describes, might be subtitled, “The Woman in My Life,” as the various figures surrounding the narrator gather about him, strangely enough all getting along quite nicely, even if occasionally, they gang up to tease the semi-beloved male at their center. And, in that sense, Barthelme’s work might be described as a kind of middle-aged male fantasy focusing on a self-satisfied persona that seems to share a great deal with its author, who, clearly, loves the kind of sad-sack landscape tarted-up with decorative plastic statues he attributes to Webster’s environment. And although this fiction admittedly is a real joy to read because of its patch-quilt plotting, too often the author seems to take the easy way out.
       Even when Webster seems to get up the energy to confront Chantal about her past life and quit their affair, he stops midway to his voyage, breaking down in the parking lot of Tommy King’s Highway Oasis, after putting his car through a carwash dozens of times—as if the act might literally wash Chantal out of his hair. A call from Diane, who is perhaps just indecisive as her ex-husband, notifies Webster that she is returning to New England and, more importantly, clarifies his confusion with regard to Jilly: “She’s in love with you…. You really ought to do something about that, one way or the other.”
     The news upon his return home that Chantal and her daughter have apparently vanished, saves him, once again, from of any responsibility or confrontation. Acting on Diane’s advice, the now slightly transformed Webster even hints to Jilly that he’s ready, if she is, to commit to marriage. “She’s so easy to be around,” one can almost hear him whisper to himself. Maybe they’ll even move to the nicer, pristine tourist community of Destin, Florida, where early on in this fiction, he checked up condos for sale.
     Slightly pleased with his the results of his utter placidity and lack of action, Webster sits out the night upon his deck, with Jilly and daughter Morgan tucked into their beds within. A plane, glimpsed on the horizon, suddenly seems to sputter out and go dead, only to come back to life before sputtering out once again, regaining its engines only to go silent as it appears to head directly toward his apartment. Webster hasn’t even time to wake his loved ones, let alone save them from destruction. All he can do, once more, is to hope, the fiction ending with his absurd affirmation: “I was almost certain that it would recover at the last minute and miss us all.”
    If Webster has survived amidst all the images and realities of death surrounding him, it surely won’t be for long. We know, that, even if he imagines that there must be some mistake, like the plane in its alternating roar and sputters, his life is just on hold, a thing of chance that if not now will one day, soon, come crashing in upon him.

Los Angeles, January 4, 2015

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