Second Marriage by Frederick Barthelme

The Tennessean November 4, 1984, page 10-D

SECOND MARRIAGE. By Frederick Barthelme. Simon and Schuster. $15.95

Tale Embodies Inanity of New South

Reviewed by John Bethune

In this first novel by Frederick Barthelme, the characters apparently live near Houston, but it hardly matters.

They live in The Suburbs.

Theirs is a world subtly but profoundly shaped by television, a world in which human values are overwhelmed by a profusion of sitcoms and commercials. It is a world unsettlingly like our own.

Television is a constant presence in the novel; it is even depicted in a Hopper-like painting on the dust jacket. The plot itself seems to have been inspired by situation comedies.

Henry, the narrator, marries Theo (these are generic characters, their last names unnecessary and unstated) and together with her clever 13-year-old daughter they move into a charming suburban house.

All goes well until Clare, Henry’s ex-wife, moves in with them to get away from her boyfriend, and Theo begins inexplicably to dig a large hole in the backyard.

Soon afterward Theo asks for a separation and Henry is cast out among the landmarks of Suburbia— Burger Kings, 7-11s and Gulf stations. The rest of the novel details Henry and Theo’s slow progress to reunion.

The story and the characters are as inane as they sound, yet the novel is a tour-de-force of deadpan wit and social observation. Frederick Barthelme (not to be confused with Donald Barthelme, an older, better-known writer) is a sophisticated and careful stylist whose stories in The New Yorker and in his first collection, Moon Deluxe, have won him much attention.

An American Beckett, Barthelme reveals the absurdity of normal affairs with a devastating photographic clarity and precision, but without the faintest condescension.

His prose, reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled style, seems deliberately drained of feeling. He writes out of an awareness that essentially meaningless acts— eating a hamburger, driving a car, watching reruns—constitute the greater part of suburban life.

Passion, love, desire are not absent here but subdued, placed in a diminished perspective amid the huge mass of the mundane.

Second Marriage is ultimately about a search for affection by people who don’t know where to begin: Theo explains her backyard excavation by saying she’s “looking for love.”

To find it in a landscape of fast-food restaurants, condominiums and manicured lawns is, the author suggests, something of a triumph.

While Barthelme is identifiably a Southerner—he grew up in Houston and lives in Mississippi—his South is not that of Yoknapatawpha but the New South of shopping malls and subdivisions.

His vision of American culture will not be palatable to all, but it offers an unblinking and often funny view of the way we live now.

John Bethune is a free-lance writer from Sewanee, Tenn.