CHESTERTOWN -- John Barth is grinning like an amiable geezer who, after years of tribulation and yearning, has just found his childhood sweetheart. Well, maybe not. But clearly, he radiates, if not happiness, deep intellectual satisfaction, as he pulls up a chair in the local library of this Eastern Shore town, ready to talk.
He has just finished the first draft of his new novel. This is the "millennium novel," his creative gesture of welcome to the next span of a thousand years. It is titled "Coming Soon!!!" He will read the opening passages of it tomorrow night at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street.
Today, he receives the Enoch Pratt Society's lifetime achievement award at a swanky, invitation-only dinner for about a hundred people in the library's grand central hall. Not only will this award, this event, burnish Barth's already glittery literary reputation, it will add $10,000 to his bank account. He is the third winner of this prize. In the two years past it went successively to Saul Bellow and Joyce Carol Oates, two of Barth's distinguished peers in the literature trade.
There is caustic irony here. First, though Barth seems ready to indulge all the millennium frenzy roiling the air these days, he's one of those sticklers who insists that the third millennium of the Christian Era won't begin until next year.
"The book won't make it for Y2K, which was my original objective," he says, "though we know that the real Y2K is this time next year anyway."
Secondly, the Pratt is closed on Fridays, this in the "City That Reads." But don't worry, they will open the doors to that temple of knowledge for this occasion, but only to allow the public access to the third-floor auditorium to hear the words of Maryland's most distinguished author.
The program starts at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6: 30.
The Enoch Pratt Society is a group of benefactors, formed to encourage private support for the library. It was founded in 1996, and has 95 members, each of whom gives $1,000 or more to the library each year. According to Bob Hillman, head of the society and former chairman of the library's board of directors, the group collected $600,000 last year. Its goal this year is to recruit 15 more members.
Along with a lot of inventive authors, Barth, 69, is fascinated by symbols, coincidences, conjunctions and arcane numerology. Such people strive to find and elucidate coherence and symmetry in the randomness of life. His new book serves this need. It will refer his readers back to the beginning, to the symbols Barth cultivated at the start of his writing career. One symbol, in particular: a great big boat.
An early favorite
Though Barth declines to announce a personal favorite among the books he has written -- it is a large family -- he will admit that he remembers "with the most satisfaction 'The Floating Opera'," his debut novel, published first in 1956 with a sunny ending, required by his publisher, then reissued in 1967, with his much darker original outcome.
"I was a raw 24-year-old when I wrote the thing, and it seems to be a pretty good work for a kid that age," he says.
At the center of that work, the physical device upon which all circumstance turned, "the regnant image," as Barth puts it, was the Adams Original and Unparalleled Floating Opera, the gaudy steamboat that Barth's protagonist, Tod Andrews, tried to send to the bottom of the Chesapeake with everybody aboard, including himself. This fictional boat, Barth says, was modeled on an actual showboat known to Barth from his Cambridge childhood, and to folks in small villages and towns along the bay's crenelated shores throughout much of the first half of this century. That real boat was called the James Adams Floating Theater.
The career of this original boat was finished by 1941, then it burned and sank. But just before that happened, it enjoyed a renewal of its popularity, even a spurt of celebrity, when it was widely broadcast that Edna Ferber had spent time aboard researching her eventual blockbuster book, which later metamorphosed into a major Broadway show and a movie, "Showboat."
"I like the idea of an aimlessly floating theater as a metaphor for all sorts of things," Barth says. "The stories float by and we pick up pieces of them as they go by ."
He also likes circles, and spirals and stories that come around on themselves. Which is what happened to him four years ago while sailing with his wife down in the southern reaches of the Chesapeake.
"We saw this huge old barge with a dilapidated office-like superstructure and a battered and tattered banner on the front that read 'Chesapeake Floating Theater James Adams II Coming soon.' With several exclamation points," he recalls.
"At that moment my muse said to me, there's your millennium novel." He went back home and began writing.
It was clear to Barth from the condition the barge was in that it had no future, except perhaps a literary one. Thus the new book, this work in progress Barth will read from tomorrow, takes us all back. In the same way that the Adams Original and Unparalleled Floating Opera was based on a real object of the Chesapeake Bay's history, so the fictional boat in his new book, The Original Floating Opera II (as Barth calls it), is inspired by another actual derelict of the bay.
Talk about symmetry, returning, coming around. Spirals, he says, are more central to the geometry of his novels. Who could doubt it?
"The book is about the closing of the century, and the closing of circles," Barth says, and then goes not much further. He does say that his second imagined theater boat will be treated not at all gently, just as all the others, fictional and real, weren't.
It gets battered by a hurricane; it runs aground. The climactic action in the novel occurs on Sept. 9, of this year. That is, on 9-9-99. This is contrived because Barth apparently likes 9s, or the drone of numerical repetition.
Barth is happy to be honored by the Pratt, as who wouldn't be? But his feelings in general about lifetime awards have not really clarified, or he's not made up his mind about them. He's not sure he likes the sound of it.
Nor is it a new experience for him. Last year he won the Santa Fe-based Lannan Foundation's annual lifetime achievement award of $100,000. He was the third recipient there as well.
"So the Pratt thing is going to be my second lifetime award," says Barth. "These things are rather chilling, I have to say. I keep wishing they would add 'thus far.' "
"When you get your second one, it's like putting the next nail in the coffin."
He says he always looks forward to books he intends to write as "my next last books." Barth has published 14 books, the great majority novels and short-story collections, most of them set in the Chesapeake Bay region where he grew up. Though he does not consider himself a Maryland writer, or one who dwells on Maryland themes, "it is the scenery I keep coming back to, the scenery that charges my batteries the most, I guess."
He's not even sure there are such things as Maryland themes.
Also, attempts to recruit him to the ranks of Southern writers have been nothing but futile. He reminds those who would enlist him in that group that "the Mason-Dixon Line on the Eastern Shore runs north and south, and I like the fact that in Maryland, its sympathies during the Civil War were utterly divided, and I never felt either like a Northerner or a Southerner."
He just feels like a writer.