April 13th, 2009 by EVENTS

Waveland by Frederick Barthelme

Waveland is about before and after, and before and after may as well be about Katrina, or about the divorce. But it is also a book about slow decay, that brought on by old age, or simply by neglect, decay that eats away at everything slowly without anyone noticing until some crisis comes?before, and after. About a year after Katrina, and his divorce, Vaughn, our protagonist, gets told rather bluntly to his face,

I hear your whole damn world disintegrated. Wife left you, you got fired, laid off, you got no job, you cruise around eating Chinese food with your landlord, observing the takeover of your world by younger, less capable guys. By children,” he said. “That’s the deal?”

The landlord is Greta, Vaughn’s new girlfriend, and the speaker is Eddie, the other tenant who lived out in the garage-apartment, and yes?that’s the deal. Except that it’s a whole lot more complicated than that, and only about to get worse. Vaughn’s ex-wife Gail gets beat up by her new boyfriend and suddenly she wants Vaughn back in the picture. Their marriage had always been based on her always needing to be rescued, on his always being there to solve one crisis or another and we all know this isn’t exactly a tenable situation, but that is all in fitting the rhythm of this book. During the marriage, Vaughn never could save her once and for all, and it took until this present moment for that to become clear to him. Bound for failure, situations like these go on anyway, until the day that everything finally falls apart. Here, it takes Katrina to finally blow the house down.

Barthelme’s prose strikes a deadpan pose that perfectly reflects the attitude Vaughn finds himself adopting. After a lifetime of being the wise guy, even the attempt to be the nice guy turns out to an intricate form of irony. There is something hollow behind it, and Greta and Gail never fail to call him on it. Whenever he threatens to be altogether too earnest, neither of the two will let him. The stark, bare-bones humor that Barthelme extracts out of this is irresistible. What is loveliest about the book, though, is Barthelme’s evocation of the landscape of the gulf coast, the backdrop over which the casinos are built, a decaying landscape, the wood-sided houses that stand up who-knows-how, even the endless gas stations and big box store parking lots. There is a certain resignation that suffuses the landscape, and in that resignation is an answer, of sorts. Vaughn is no longer in the business of saving his wife. He’s already deleveraged himself from being the master of the universe, about his words and deeds having purchase in the world. He had already gone from burning down the whole architectural establishment in his graduate school days to merely designing “important” buildings throughout the Southeast, to detailing toilet seats, to nothing much anymore. Eventually, when it’s finally clear that they can’t fix Gail, Vaughn and Greta simply pick up and leave.

There was something of the celebration about the trip?the slow drive with the windows down, the clammy gulf air blowing through the car windows, the empty streets, the almost slow-motion of a parade.”

That’s the Gulf Coast all right. The beauty comes from how low-key it is. It won’t blow you away, but there is a certain rightness about it. Not an unfair assessment of the book, either.

Reviewed by James Liu

Waveland by Frederick Barthelme
Doubleday Books, 2009
Cloth, 240 pp, $24.95
ISBN-10: 0385527292

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