Novels and Short Stories of Frederick Barthelme. A Literary Critical Analysis

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Critics have generally categorized Frederick Barthelme as a minimalist, meaning for some a writer who caught the tide of a reaction to the metafiction that dominated literary production in the sixties and much of the seventies, and for others a writer who had nothing to say beyond the surface of the prose. The minimalism that is the hallmark of Barthelme’s style, in fact, invites a reading of the stories and novels beyond just the accuracy of description, the precision of imagery, and the economy of language. Barthelme is best read as a contemporary moralist, not of the prescriptive type, but of the descriptive type. Not interrogating and establishing “codes” of behavior by which people might live (as Hemingway did), Barthelme demonstrates how people do live in the postmodern age, an age which no longer enjoys a grand narrative or a religious underpinning. Particularly, he shows how people negotiate sexual relationships and marriage following the sexual revolution of the sixties and the women’s movement of the seventies. The purpose of this study is to review the criticism surrounding Barthelme’s fiction and to engage in a closer reading of Barthelme’s texts in order to see beyond the highly engaging surface of the prose to the interrogation of contemporary morality in which Barthelme is engaged.


"This study will be most useful to newcomers to Barthelme ... Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and graduate students; general readers." - CHOICE

“As succeeding waves of writers established themselves, the literary landscape they were shaping often seemed not to make very much sense, a fact of which John Hughes is clearly cognizant, for his effort in this study of the minimalist fiction of Frederick Barthelme is in part to make sense of the evolution of style and convention in American literature and, at the same time, to consider the subject matter by which the literature makes itself known. Hughes urges his readers to recognize that the minimalist work of Frederick Barthelme shows his readers what is, and is doing so shows them something about their word. ...What makes literary criticism like this work by John Hughes valuable is that it allows us to see something larger about the work of Frederick Barthelme than we would likely see alone – its place in the evolving consciousness of the writer and the reader and its place in the continuous movement of American letters.” – Dr. Phebe Davidson, Distinguished Professor of English, G. L. Toole Chair in English, University of South Carolina Aiken

“Barthelme, of the famous writing family, may be the last practitioner of the art of minimalism, and if his name is overshadowed by his more famous brother, Donald, that is a shame. For Frederick Barthelme is a fine writer, worthy of discussion and analysis. To correct this slight, John Hughes’s book may be a necessary first step in that reclamation. … Hughes has written a comprehensive introduction to the fiction of Frederick Barthelme, one that answers the charges leveled against Barthelme as a practitioner of minimalism. Each of Barthelme’s books is examined in detail, including his earliest metafictional efforts; and though Hughes obviously values Barthelme’s work, he is no apologist. Where there are flaws and weaknesses, especially in Barthelme’s early pieces, Hughes is not hesitant to point them out and, in doing so, show the progression and development of Barthelme into one of minimalism’s best representative writers. Hughes’s real strength, however, is in limning the beauty and depth in Barthelme’s stories and novels in a way that has been done much too rarely, as Hughes’s review of the critical response shows. Hughes’s best analyses deal with his discussion of Barthelme’s use of point of view, and Hughes is especially insightful – even groundbreaking – in his commentary on what the second person point of view brings to fiction and reader engagement and disengagement. This should be of great interest to anyone involved in the conversation about point of view and should inform future critical perspective. Also cogent is Hughes’s discussion of Barthelme’s relationship to the work of the metafictionalists, such as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon. Hughes’s work is valuable for those who wish to further their attack on minimalism, for the thought-provoking work will provide new ground for argument. It is essential for those who wish to advance the cause of minimalism, for Hughes reveals the grace and elegance writers such as Barthelme bring to the art of writing.” – Dr. Laurel V. Williamson, Vice President and Dean of Faculty, Lower Columbia College, Longview, Washington

“Hughes’s work analyzes and responds to the criticisms of Barthelme’s fiction, most notably the repetitious complaint from various voices in the literary community that Barthelme’s work, though finely crafted with a masterly control of dialogue and acute observation, is a reflection of the weaknesses found in his chosen style of minimalism – empty, devoid of value, lacking in meaning. Hughes examines and defines minimalism, and more specifically, Barthelme’s use of minimalism in his short stories and novels. Barthelme’s fiction, Hughes tells us, is not finely crafted narratives which are meaningless, which is an explanation that is easy to draw since his fiction does not tell the reader how to live. What we have with Barthelme is a truly postmodern writer who is “a contemporary moralist, if not of the demagogic type, then at least of the descriptive type, for that is what Barthelme finally does: if not tell people how to live, as Hemingway did, then to tell how people do live, how they negotiate the postmodern world, with its great surpluses (of things) and its great lacks (of absolutes, of guidelines, of rules of behavior) … Hopefully, with this work Hughes will draw attention to a literary figure that deserves our attention and respect not only for the quality of his craft, but for conveying to the reader that we must accept and love our world.” – Dr. James Thomas, Professor of English, Valenica Community College, Orlando, Florida

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Sex Wars: Moon Deluxe and Chroma
3. The Minimalist Novel: Second Marriage and Tracer
4. The minimalist Takes a Deeper Breath: Two against One and Natural Selection
5. Postmodern Ethics: The Brothers and Painted Desert
6. The Intersection of Fiction and Reality: Bob the Gambler and Double Down
7. “The Awful Daring of a Moment”: Elroy Nights
8. Conclusion

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