Books

It Won’t Get Any Better: On Frederick Barthelme’s There Must Be Some Mistake

In a review of Frederick Barthelme’s novel Elroy Nights (Counterpoint, 2003), Bruce Barcott writes, “A couple of years ago I saw a picture of Frederick Barthelme that startled me. The bearish, balding author possessed the most haunted, sorrowful expression I’d ever seen. It was as if his face revealed the burden of having to tell his readers, ‘Look, it won’t get any better.’”

It was around 2005 that I first encountered the work of Frederick Barthelme: Double Down, a memoir co-authored by his brother, Steven. At the time I was spending my nights driving back and forth to the casino with my (now ex) husband and losing too much money, though nothing exciting ever happened. I soon bought Moon Deluxe and Chroma, Elroy Nights, Bob the Gambler. With the exception of Stephen King, I had never read so many of one author’s books. I wanted nothing more than to go to the University of Southern Mississippi to study with him.

I remember sitting on my floor in Meridian, looking at the course catalogue. Hattiesburg was less than an hour and a half away, but the distance felt insurmountable. I didn’t like to drive; my husband wasn’t excited about the idea. The reasons were more complicated than this.

A few years later—post-divorce, post-gambling binges—I applied. And then I was sitting at a table next to one of my very favorite writers, a hero of sorts, though of course I did not let him know this.

I suppose I’m more curious about the life of Wallace Webster, the narrator of Barthelme’s sixteenth book, There Must Be Some Mistake, because I’m curious about the life of Frederick Barthelme. I recall the few times I saw him emerge from the movie theater in the middle of the day, how strange he looked out of context. In the classroom he didn’t bark like a dog or throw our stories on the table and ask, “What is this shit?” as I’d heard he’d done in the past. Sometimes he stood at the window and commented on a statue or something. Sometimes he liked my stories and sometimes he didn’t. He was always funny and generous.

Once I told him I thought a story could be about anything at all and he said, “Is that your aesthetic position?” I told him it was. Another time he held my tiny collection, Big World, in his hand and asked if it represented the entirety of my oeuvre. Oeuvre, I thought, what a wonderful word! I had never heard anyone use it before.

In my final year at Southern Mississippi, Barthelme was sent into early retirement, ousted in a political battle with the literature department (the details of which I wasn’t privy to), much to the dismay of those of us in the creative writing program. He was the reason nearly all of us were there.

The following year, I left Southern Mississippi and went to the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. I wasn’t cut out for anything other than a studio writing program comprised of patient and kindly professors who understood that sometimes some of us would be drunk or in jail or in a mental institution (not me, of course), and that life was very, very hard because we were writers.

And then there is this: Wallace Webster has just been sent into early retirement at Point Blank Design in Houston, with “a silver plate engraved with fine sentiments and thanks for almost thirty years of service.”

To fill the time, Webster sleeps away the daylight hours and drives around aimlessly. He banters with his daughter, Morgan, and various women friends and exes (like many of Barthelme’s narrators, he doesn’t like men much). These characters feel deeply but don’t bother each other with their problems in the way people typically do. They comfort themselves by slathering butter on Saltines and driving through the carwash. They go to Target and buy stuff. They play Candy Crush and watch Wallander and The Killing, and thunderstorms. I imagine Barthelme spending his days like this as well, but then we all eat and watch TV and go to Target. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy a good thunderstorm.

In a novel, this kind of everyday stuff can be banal, painful even, but Barthelme is so skilled he makes you wish you were with his characters eating Chinese at their usual table, the menu memorized, joking around with the owner, Teresa.

Teresa brought out a plate of steamed dumplings and a set of plastic appetizer plates, small and oval, and we passed the dumplings and ordered while we were doing it. Teresa was pleasant and funny, repeating our orders in her broken English, swatting Morgan on the shoulder and laughing when Morgan answered some question Teresa asked in the same broken English.

“You make fun,” Teresa said. “You come China, try speak. You leave Teresa alone. I do fine. You want pancake?”

There is a lot of eating in this novel, and many important conversations take place around food. Food makes subjects like aging, death, and religion a little easier. Lighter.

Whatever is wrong with Webster’s life—the boredom, the failures and disappointments—he always has the night: “Days were dreary, a time to work at something you didn’t want to do, a waste, time spent waiting for evening, for darkness and the window, the Bay, the birds, the pretty little boats, the distant weather, watching as the night gathered it all up.” Webster has something to look forward to every single day, something that is very close to perfection for him.

He also has Jilly Rudolph, sort of, a coworker from Point Blank Design who doesn’t seem to actually work. Jilly chooses instead to spend her time with Webster in his condo in Kemah, halfway between Houston and Galveston. (The women in this novel have the most wonderful names. Along with Jilly Rudolph, there’s Bernadette Loo, Chantal White, Lucy Meringue, and Roberta Spores. The descriptions of these characters are just as inventive, without ever reducing them to stereotypes.)

When his neighbors at Forgetful Bay start dying—Forest Ng is the first to go, in a suspicious car accident—Webster joins his community to try and figure out what’s going on. Instead of simply watching the world go by as he has in the past, he becomes an active participant: attending meetings, delaying his walks to chat with neighbors. He receives visits from various people, including Detective Jean Darling, who turns his life into something akin to one of the murder shows he likes to watch. Though he lives alone, Webster is more and more frequently kept company by Jilly and Morgan. He even begins to send postcards to people he’s been out of touch with for years: “It was a small thing, the postcards, but it was something.”

There are so many passages in his this novel that speak to aging and loss, becoming invisible. Though I’m only thirty-seven, I understand. As the cliché goes, the birthdays come faster every year. The Shins said it best: “The years have seemed short but the days were long.” Though I never forget my age, the men I’m attracted to don’t seem to get any older. I still move around a lot, and my apartments are too often dark and lonely. I also like The Killing, Chinese food, and Target. In the carwash, sometimes I even take a picture. It’s so pretty when the soap is sprayed onto the windshield.

Webster is living, perhaps more than ever, but he’s aware of the futility of it all, the absurdity:

“You know what I thought about the other night when I was driving back here?” he asks. “I thought about my mother and father in heaven with my brother Raleigh, sitting up there, all three of them grinning like fools watching us down here. Like we were in a sack race and they’d already done their stint and were up there watching us tumble home.”

“More like a game of Whack-A-Mole,” Morgan said.

“You got that from me, darling,” I said.

“I’ll footnote it,” she said.

Of course, he’s eating while this conversation occurs (chocolate pudding for palate-cleansing purposes).

This is one of the things Barthelme does best. He gives us the truth, but spares us the whole sentimentality part. He may be saying, “Look, it won’t get any better,” and people may be dropping dead all around us at an alarming rate, but he’s also insisting we get on with it, that we continue to send postcards and take aimless drives, and maybe even fall in love. And when things look particularly bleak, there is always the night to look forward to, with its pretty little boats.

Mary Miller is the author of two books, The Last Days of California and Big World. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, New Stories from the South, Mississippi Review, American Short Fiction, and others. She currently serves as the John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi.