Barthelme's "Desert: The detours engage


"Painted Desert" by Frederick Barthelme. New York: Viking. 245 pages, $22.95

Frederick Barthelme's new novel isn't about the end of our voyage. It's about the roads we take to get there. "Painted Desert" is literally a road trip, as Del and Jen, the odd couple Mr. Barthelme wrote about in his novel "The Brothers," decide to do something about this terrible world by driving from Mississippi to the "ground zero" of America's troubles: Los Angeles, home of the O.J. Simpson follies and that engrossing TV show called the L.A. Riots.

Despite the novel's travelogue tendencies, it's a colorful, funny evocation of the big frustrations and tiny joys of life. Like "The Brothers," "Painted Desert" paints states of mind -- middle-aged angst and idealistic youth -- without really analyzing the strange South it portrays.

Mr. Barthelme, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars whose novels include "Tracer" and "Natural Selection," here aims to be smart, not cerebral. He takes his readers on a meandering summer vacation, not a profound journey, but his quirky optimism is comforting as he acknowledges the confusion, violence and irony inherent to modern America.

Del is a divorced junior college professor, now 47, who is %J perplexed by his still-aimless life and unsure of his commitment to girlfriend Jen, now 27. In "The Brothers," he sorted out his relationship with his eccentric brother, Bud; now, he is settled enough in his job and his condo in Biloxi to question why he isn't as settled as, say, Jen's suburbanite dad.

Jen, who once lived with a boyfriend named Itch in a van, seems adaptable to anything, but even she is distressed. A "cybermuckraker" who combs the Internet for stories of humanity's cruelty to humanity, she has turned from her terrorzine -- a one-sheet publication of morbid tales - to fomenting dissent on the 'net. One conspiracy nut rants through electronic mail: "People have to be executed, removed from the gene pool," he writes. "Now is the time."

Jen is particularly disturbed by the riot actions of Damian Williams, who was convicted in the beating of Reginald Denny and whose humiliation of another truck driver, Fidel Lopez, has her steamed. She's pretty sure Williams deserves to die, but she has vague notions of what she and Del would actually do in L.A. "We need to demonstrate that certain behavior is not acceptable in our civilization," she declares.

So -- why not go to L.A.? They bring Jen's dad, Mike, along and pick up another of Jen's friends on their westward trek. The mission has plenty of diversions, which become ends in themselves. Jen's dad wants to see the site of JFK's assassination, Dealey Plaza in Dallas. While the plaza is disappointing, the trip leads Mike on a sightseeing tour of his soul.

After Dealey Plaza, that landmark of conspiracy, there's much more to explore, including Roswell, the purported UFO crash site in New Mexico. There are Indian ruins, Carlsbad Caverns and the Painted Desert. Los Angeles seems farther and farther away, and although Jen keeps plugging her laptop into the Internet, she and Del start to suspect that their quest lies elsewhere.

Bursting with the peculiar language, images and brand names common to TV and Internet culture, "Painted Desert" is a very Now book that might seem ancient in 10 years. In Mr. Barthelme's novel, the future isn't as relevant as the moment. So now is the time to enjoy the story's small pleasures and simple answers, which lie in detours, not destinations.

* Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Miami Herald, Premiere, bOING bOING, Indie File and the Charlotte Poetry Review.

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