'Elroy Nights': reaching for human frailty

October 26, 2003|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Special to the Sun

Elroy Nights, by Frederick Barthelme. Counterpoint Press, 224 pages. $24.

Much has been made of the fragility of human relationships. But what is really astonishing about affection is how strong it is -- and this is the territory Frederick Barthelme maps in Elroy Nights.

Elroy Nights is a college art professor in his 50s. He has a pretty good life: a relatively undemanding job at Dry River University in D'Iberville, Miss., a steady wife named Clare, a stepdaughter who has crossed the shoals of adolescence, a big brick house on the water. Trouble is, he wants something else, but he can't quite define what it is.

So he leaves the house and the wife in an amicable separation and rents a condo on the beach. Middle-aged Elroy becomes the cool darling of the art students he teaches in fairly short order, and soon his house is a salon where students drop by at all hours.

Barthelme has a keen eye for the distance between twentysomething and fiftysomething (not surprising, as he directs the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi), and one of the many delightful things in Elroy Nights is how precisely he charts that gap. It doesn't take Elroy very long to develop a most politically incorrect intimacy with a female student who's a friend of his stepdaughter's, and as he and the lissome Freddie enjoy a post-coital rest on the floor of his office, Elroy begins to muse.

"After a while the realization of what had happened came to me, and I became very self conscious, and I started thinking about the two of us there on the floor of my office. All the dirt and dust. The books stacked, the papers stacked. I was suddenly afraid for her hair, that she might get her hair dirty."

In time, the salons at his condo fade and Freddie drifts toward another art student, the talented Edward Works -- the student who most reminds Elroy of himself when he was younger.

When Edward commits suicide, Elroy is pushed into adult behavior despite himself. When his stepdaughter's boyfriend wants her to come get him in Memphis, Elroy drives her there. When Freddie's grief over Edward turns to terror, Elroy is the shoulder she leans on.

The trip to Memphis becomes a trip to Dallas, too, a week of chaste nights spent in little gulf motels and pancakes for lunch most days. Finally, it's time to come home, so Elroy and his twentysomethings seek refuge with Elroy's wife in the pleasant brick house, where Elroy begins to process his extraordinary journey. He also begins to think about his wife in a new way.

"I'd been seeing a woman half her age, the age of her child, and Clare just rolled with the punch," he reflects. "She cared for me, thought of us as connected but not limited. She saw everything from her own view, and from a point of view not her own. Lip service is given to this, but I think it is not so commonplace."

It isn't. The usual name for it is love, and Barthelme's dissection of this gossamer feeling that binds like steel is an evocative, delicate study of human frailty. His novel is a book that rests lightly but persistently on the reader's mind.

Dail Willis, a former Sun reporter and editor, is a financial writer in Charlottesville, Va. Her reviews have been published by The Sun, the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers, as well as the Associated Press.

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