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After Storms Literal and Metaphoric, Rebuilding

Apr 29, 2009

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Reported by

Maud Newton

Frederick Barthelme is probably best known as the co-author — with his brother, Steve — of Double Down , a memoir about gambling away their inheritance in Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos after the death of their parents and more famous brother, Donald.

Despite its tone of detachment, the book masterfully evoked the laid-back but depressed climate of that entire stretch of coast — from Biloxi, through Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis, to Waveland — and the bright, smoky casinos where locals and visitors alike spent hour after hour drunk, delirious and feeding the slots.

Six years after Double Down's publication, Hurricane Katrina plowed through the region, devastating it more fully than Camille had in '69. Little has been written about the place since, until now.

Barthelme's latest novel, Waveland, his 12th work of fiction, obliquely parallels the fate of the town of its title. "Even before Katrina," he writes, "when Waveland was all there, it wasn't a high-toned beach town; it was more like 10 miles of down-on-its-luck trailer park. After the storm, it was 10 miles of debris, snapped phone poles, shredded sheets in the trees."

Recovery has been slow because, basically, there is nothing to recover, especially for Vaughn, whose wife, Gail, kicked him out shortly after the hurricane.

"Why don't you just move along," she'd said one day. A year later, in an effort to be more connected, he has moved in with Greta, his blunt and slightly shady new girlfriend, who is "pretty in a beat-up way" and has yet to cast much light on her husband's unsolved murder.

Greta and Vaughn are coexisting "like shipwreck victims washed up on some blown-out shore." Their relaxed lovemaking and low expectations seem like a feeble bulwark against despair. Then Gail resurfaces and threatens to shake things up.

Because of its straightforward language, focus on the everyday and minimal plotting, Barthelme's fiction draws comparisons to that of Raymond Carver. Yet the shattered world of Waveland also recalls Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman, in which a young man wrenched from the everyday by a sudden amnesiac fugue state is able to experience life anew.

Like Double Down, Barthelme's latest is about loss — of property, love and family — but it is also a recognition that starting over, however involuntarily, forces people out of habit and into building something that might hold up better this time.

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Waveland
By Frederick Barthelme
Doubleday
Hardcover, 240 pages
List Price: $24.95

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