Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"The Brothers" by Frederick Barthelme

“They left the hotel at three the next afternoon. Jen was driving, Bud and Margaret were in the back. They took a turn bt the beach long enough for a last look, then slipped back up to I-10 and headed west toward Mobile. They were riding alongside an eighteen-wheel truck that had big lemons and limes painted on its side. The traffic was surprisingly heavy, Jen pulled in behind the truck and hit the cruise control. “I’m just following this guy,” she said. “Wherever he goes.” (p. 128)

This paragraph from half way through the novel serves as a good example of the forward momentum of Frederick Barthelme’s narrative. Perhaps ‘momentum’ isn’t the right word, as the direction hardly seems driven by forces originating in the past. I can’t think of a novel in which past, certainly fate, plays so small a role. Does Fate exist in Barthelme’s cosmos? Not much would seem to be more ripe for a depiction of fate working its strange power than the relationship between brothers (inviting as it can a veritable mess of power struggles and envy, not to mention mythic analogies reaching into the archaic past), and yet Del and Bud here experience less of this than one would have thought dramatically interesting, for all their problems. Actually, ‘The Brothers’, isn’t all that dramatically interesting, but what is compelling is one of the most detailed descriptions of the ‘new South’ that out-Percys Percy, where Gas-mart attendants have bellies the size of cash registers and Kmart and Audio Instinct are more prevalent than plantations. Much, much more prevalent.

‘The Brothers’ is actually a little lopsided as titles go, as all the action is centered around Del, who has just moved to Biloxi following a divorce that took place just before the novel begins. Considering the conflict that is one of the main threads of the novel (even ‘thread’ seems too substantial), Del and Bud seem anxious to help one another. Bud tries to get Del a more respectable job at his community college. Del tries to help Bud out with his mood swings. They act, not to put to fine a point on it, brotherly.

If anything, the friction between Del and the other characters exist as a series of foils for the central relationship between the brothers, which is mysterious enough to resist an easy description of conflict, if not conflict itself. About two thirds of the way through the novel there is a minor incident between Del and his girlfriend involving a knife. Was it an accident, or wasn’t it really aggression disguised as an accident? Probably Not, everyone decides – Del, the girlfriend, the narrator and this reader, at least – just an accident. Who knows for sure? But the injury itself is real, even if it isn’t deliberate.

Society is no help. A barbecue turns into petty match of egos, simultaneously stunted and monstrous, a road trip brings everybody back to right where they started. Religion isn’t what it used to be; now it’s priests on the lamb to shack up with girlfriends like everybody else, and trying to break into the gambling business to boot. Del and Jen play at confession, and as a result religion seems less mocked than resurrected in some strange new form. Del prays the prayers of his childhood, but of course he isn’t a child anymore. Or perhaps prayer given him, at least for a moment, a child's perspective.

There are injuries of many kinds in this novel. Between husband and wife, between colleagues, between strangers and between loved ones, including, of course, brother and brother. The final scene is a funny, endearing example of the power of love and imagination, maybe love as imagination, to heal those injuries.