Brothers play with love and lust as they live out their banal lives



Frederick Barthelme


261 pages. $21 Seeing the crash just ahead, Jen turns the car into the "pumpkin-colored" parking lot in front of Polly's Interstate Peanut & Fruit Hutch. Polly's is a roadside stand providing poetry and comic relief in Frederick Barthelme's latest novel, "The Brothers."

Mr. Barthelme studied creative writing under his older, recently deceased brother Donald, and also under John Barth at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. An artist and writer, Mr. Barthelme writes experimental -- at times surrealistic -- fiction, for which he has received mixed reviews.

Though he has said he doesn't want to be called a minimalist, the term seems to describe aptly much of his work. There is, however, a poetry to the language that raises the quality of writing above that which is usually called minimalist.

This story focuses on two brothers living banal lives in a banal world. They try to work out their relationship after one brother has almost, but not quite, become sexually involved with the other's wife.

Polly's is the underside of this banal world. Made of tar paper and chicken wire, Polly's sits on a highway in Biloxi, Miss. "The late sunlight, just about gold" is "washing into the car" as Del, the protagonist of the story, steps onto the parking lot with his lover, Jen; his brother, Bud, and Bud's wife, Margaret. According to the proprietor, Polly's is Runt World, "fruitwise and vegetablewise."

At Polly's, "What you get is a certificate for watermelon at some time in the future." The jar of preserves will "shoehorn into the walls of your arteries and bury itself." A small plastic house, a '40s-style bungalow, is beside the cash register and has red and yellow peaks around it. When you throw the switch, the peaks turn into flames. Tiny, mouse-like shrieks come from the house.

Polly's contrasts with the university world inhabited by Bud and Margaret, both professors. It also provides comic relief, somewhat reminiscent of Shakespeare's clowns.

The characters seem disconnected from one another and from themselves. In fact, they spend most of the story looking for someone to hold onto. Bud and Margaret look for the meaning of their relationship. Del looks for love and for a job.

Mr. Barthelme describes their search in understated, loosely written prose that is punctuated by brand names: Kmart, "Where's Waldo," a Sea and Ski smell, a T-shirt with "Live Fast or Die" on it, a Burger King shirt with glitter pants and so on. And then there are the prayers: Del, a fallen Catholic, mumbles parts of the "Our Father" and the "Hail Mary."

The story meanders in a humdrum pace. Then a paragraph, sometimes a page or so, of pure poetry follows. The effect is unsettling. Imagine someone taking a shower. Water hisses; the soap is clunked down; the drain guzzles. Suddenly you hear one of the sweetest arias. The song/poem ends before you know it and humdrum begins again.

The very name "Polly's Peanut & Fruit Hutch" suggests poetry. Mr. Barthelme plays with names, juxtaposing them through his story as if they were metaphors. Jen's magazine also has a poetry to it: She publishes a one-page magazine consisting of unusual stories. And she frequently changes the magazine's title. At first it's Blood and Slime Weekly. Later it becomes Really Nice Stories, Organ Meats and then Warm Digits, depending on the subjects of the stories.

Besides being unusual, these stories provide ironic commentary Mr. Barthelme's world, giving it an "Alice in Wonderland" effect. The characters, though, aren't children playing with cards. They're adults -- and this is Mr. Barthelme's point -- playing with love, lust and the fires that these can ignite.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

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