Novel is a comedic, deadly serious morality tale

September 23, 1990|By DIANE SCHARPER

Natural Selection.

Frederick Barthelme.

Viking.

212 pages. $18.95. As Frederick Barthelme sees it, his fiction doesn't mirror a world; it creates a world. An odd world, it suggests a blend of Architectural Digest and Advertising Age. It reads like a kind of poetry of the suburbs, replete with neon signs, freeways and brand names. The protagonists are male, 40, angst-ridden, Holden Caulfield types. They drink Diet Coke, drive Hondas and live with their chirpy second wives in a homogeneous housing development.

Every few years, they trade up for a newer car or a better house. Other than that, nothing much happens in these stories, which are told in the understated prose often associated with university writing programs -- Mr. Barthelme, in fact, studied under John Barth at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, where he won the Elliott Coleman Award for Prose. Since then, he's written two collections of short fiction and three novels. All of them have focused on disconnectedness. "Natural Selection," Mr. Barthelme's third novel, continues the pattern but adds a shocking twist -- one that establishes him as a major voice in contemporary fiction.

When the story opens, readers enter a ho-hum Houston suburb. The protagonist and narrator, Peter Wexler, specializes in mood shifts and adolescent self-preoccupation. He says he's trapped. Nothing's right about his family, his home, his neighborhood, the country. He gripes about the middle-class "mess we live in, the mess we make of our lives. ..." In short, he feels both alienated and fenced in. He's also, as his wife reminds him, experiencing one heck of a midlife crisis. She calls it the Peter Disease.

Peter blames his malaise on everybody else, especially Lily, his supercharged wife who speaks like someone from "The Far Side." It's hard to be hot and bothered in the suburbs, Lily explains: "You've got your Maytag, your microwave ... everything's working against you." Life would have meaning, Peter thinks, if things actually did work against you, if there were a real problem, a crisis. As it is, life is like television with the sound turned off: "We can't figure which way is up half the time."

Looking for perspective and possibilities, Peter moves out to a rented house that has the ambience of a Ramada Inn. He half-seriously writes a suicide note, runs through his pet peeves for anyone who will listen, and soon gets caught up in the petty pace of day-to-day. As the story closes, readers expect an ending in midair, some gesture signifying nothing. But the ending signifies everything.

On the last 11 pages, everyone changes. The author does justify those changes, and readers who skim will miss the point of the novel. For this only seems to be a comedy of middle-class mannerisms. Instead, it's a morality tale, a deadly serious one. As a result, Peter gets what he wants, finds more perspective than he can handle. And in approximately 15 minutes, he grows up. Mr. Barthelme plays a masterful game of Crack the Whip with his characters. They leave the world of fiction and enter into art. Here there are no boundaries.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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