The Law of Averages: New and Selected Stories by Frederick Barthelme

Although seemingly simply written, these are some of the most sophisticated stories I have ever read. Barthelme is so even tempered, so subtly loving, and so good at fixing upon key details that bring a scene to life that his work is both a joy to read and a reward to study. His subject, the “New South,” with its strip malls and pierced adolescents, is much less differentiated than Faulkner’s, and much less expansive than Hemingway’s grandiose global stage of writerly operations. Yet Barthelme’s prose is more than up to the task of rendering this less differentiated south, and his writerly consciousness, on covert display in these finely wrought works of art whose mundane subject matter belies their grandeur, exhibits a cryptic machismo beyond Hemingway’s would be all-inclusive ken. Barthelme also shines in comparison to the gargantuan novels and experiments in verbal excess now routinely turned out by the graduates of MFA programs, and predictably praised on book jackets, in what, splashing ink rather than light, amount to acts of mercantile onanism by literate but not literary employees of publishing conglomerates who mistake grandiloquence for greatness, which they imagine they can manufacture. I am guessing, but Barthelme may have gained an advantage at the beginning of his story writing career because he wanted to distinguish himself (as detailed in the Introduction) from his older brother Donald Barthelme, whose literary experiments, though widely admired, inspired him to gravitate towards a different aesthetic. The result, in its mature form, on display here is not only an aesthetic, but a human triumph: the stories, as apparently the man, never overreach and, like most great art, conceal difficult, highly wrought craft in t seemingly effortless compositions. The novel has been defined as “a mirror taken on the road.” Not everyone will identify with the hyperrealistic images captured (the protagonists’ recurring fetish for pretty television newscasters comes to mind), but anyone interested in art must admire the power and precision of these stories’ narrative lens.

Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).

excerpt

You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent at the neck of her blouse opens slightly — she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, tan, and greatly freckled. She wears a dark blue V-neck blouse without a collar, and her skirt is white cotton, calf length, slit up the right side to a point just beneath her thigh. Her hair, a soft blond, is pulled straight and close to the scalp, woven at the back into a single thick strand. In the fluorescent light of the display cabinet her eye shadow shines.

She catches you staring and gives you a perfunctory but knowing smile, and you turn quickly to study the purses on the chrome rack next to where you stand. You are embarrassed. You open a large red purse from the rack and stick your hand inside, pretending to inspect the lining. Then you lift the purse to your face as if the smell of it will help you determine the quality of the leather. The truth is that having sniffed the skin of the purse, you don’t know what material it is, and, for just an instant, that troubles you. You look more closely at the purse, twisting the lip a little so you can see the label, on which, in very small print, it says: MAN-MADE MATERIALS.

After what seems like a long time, you glance again at the perfume counter: the girl is not there. You drop the red purse back onto its hook, and stand on your toes looking for the girl. Then you start toward the center of the purse department for a clearer view.

“Can we help you with something?”

It’s the salesgirl in Purses. She’s thin, a brunette, with stylized makeup that seems to carve her face. She’s wearing a thin black silklike dress — a sundress, and her shoulders are bare. She has caught you off guard and presses her advantage by putting a smooth hand with perfect red nails on your forearm.

“Sir?”

“Well,” you begin, “I was looking for a gift.”

“Of course you were,” the girl says. The tone is patronizing. She has seen you staring at the blond girl in Perfumes.

“For my wife,” you say.

“Something in the way of a purse,” she says. “Or perhaps a nice perfume?”

“I’d better go,” you say, but she tightens her grip on your arm and glances over a lightly rouged shoulder at a middle-aged woman who is standing impatiently at the far end of the purse department.

“I have a customer,” the salesgirl says. “But why don’t you wait a minute and talk to me? Jenny says you’re very handsome but painfully shy — are you shy? Will you wait?”

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