Book review: Five stories from The Law of Averages, Frederick Barthelme

In review

One reviewer puts it wonderfully: “the people in Barthelme’s best stories still skirt the edge of derangement, but their meltdowns result in paid comedy underlaid with compassion”. I can’t help but agree that each and every story, at least in the first five stories under Not My Idea, have characters that are just about to implode and lose themselves, only that the story’s protagonist holds them together: think of the unnamed man in Shopgirls who fish for department store salesladies but doesn’t sleep with them; or in Pool Lights, where a man eats cornflakes while he reads through his summer project, tons of magazines in “neat low stacks”, with a fastidious method of arranging them – stripping the covers, fastening them together, to make “books” of covers; Domestic has a housewife, Marie, looking at his husband Albert dig a hole on their front yard that’s about five feet deep and five feet wide, which she basks in later in the story; or Grapette’s casual handling of a disturbing phenomenon: a father’s workmate having a “little romance” with his precocious thirteen year-old daughter, Carmel, the story a reunion of sorts during Carmel’s seventeenth birthday; or Violet, about a runaway who works at Pie Country at Palmetto St, and who would push the protagonist to spice up his night at a diner, and when meeting Sidney, who’s dying to drive his Rabbit. All of the men are sexually or romantically frustrated in their own ways, and are willing to take on risks to appease their hunger for adventure. The quirks, the lifestyles (microwaved food, bare apartments, Texan landscapes), how they are written, and how they are essential in the machinery of each story, how it unexpectedly careens in each and every paragraph: these are what I love. Each and every story – maybe not Pool Lights – is perfect for me.

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