Authors: Frederick Barthelme

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

War and War, 1971

Second Marriage, 1984

Tracer, 1985

Two Against One, 1988

Natural Selection, 1990

The Brothers, 1993

Painted Desert, 1995

Bob the Gambler, 1997

Short Fiction:

Rangoon, 1970

Moon Deluxe, 1983

Chroma, 1987

The Law of Averages: New and Selected Stories, 2000


Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, 1999 (with Steven Barthelme)


Frederick Barthelme (BAHRT-uhl-mee) belongs in the forefront of the generation of such postmodern writers as John Barth, with whom he studied at one time, and Thomas Pynchon. Barthelme was the son of Donald Barthelme, an architect, and his wife, Helen, a teacher. After attending Tulane University and the University of Houston and taking a master’s degree at The Johns Hopkins University in 1977, Barthelme held jobs in several creative fields, including architecture and advertising, and at one time intended to pursue painting as a career. In 1976, he began teaching fiction writing at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he also directed the Center for Writers.{$I[AN]9810001335}{$I[A]Barthelme, Frederick}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Barthelme, Frederick}{$I[tim]1943;Barthelme, Frederick}

Barthelme’s earliest work was unsuccessful commercially and critically. The stories collected in Rangoon were notable for their avant-garde subject matter and their lack of conventional structure. They drew their significance from the juxtaposition of ordinary and often radically diverse objects and situations. This effect of collage was heightened by the use of drawings and photographs. Many of the stories are characterized by a flatness of tone and imagery which is reflective of minimalist writings of the 1980’s. Barthelme’s first novel, War and War, is a freewheeling parody of the self-conscious narrative style of writers such as Laurence Sterne. Full of allusions to philosophers and linguists, War and War is a static, highly intellectual showcase for Barthelme’s considerable erudition.

After a period of silence, Barthelme began to publish stories that had more traditional structure but were still colored by the presence of what Margaret Atwood, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called “seedy, greasy, plastic-coated things or lush, expensive, meretricious things.” Seventeen of these stories, including thirteen that first appeared in The New Yorker, were collected in Moon Deluxe. Stories such as the title piece, “Safeway,” and “Monster Deal” reveal a significant thematic development in their blurring of the roles of men and women. On balance, Barthelme’s men are socially and sexually passive, if not impotent; his women are vigorous and unpredictable.

In Second Marriage and Tracer, Barthelme applied his acute vision to wider and deeper subjects. Both novels dance precariously along the jagged line between farce and pathos. In Second Marriage, the protagonist watches helplessly as his first wife moves in with his second and the two form a union that excludes him. In Tracer, the central figure becomes involved in an affair with his estranged wife’s sister, whereupon the wife arrives to reclaim him. There is a strong undercurrent of feminism in these triangles, in which women make the decisions. The theme of a passive male willingly or unwillingly being dominated by forceful women is again joined with sharp scrutiny of the objects, natural and artificial, which litter the desert of modern culture.

The stories in Chroma focus vividly on relationships that are as plain in form as the indistinguishable condominiums that the characters inhabit. The characters themselves are sculpted from contemporary life in the New South of the 1980’s. Using a camera-eye point of view, Barthelme refrains from passing judgment on the choices his characters make. In spite of an inevitable flatness of tone associated with such authorial detachment, Barthelme’s prose is often brilliantly polished.

Two Against One, as the title implies, returns to the triangle theme of Barthelme’s previous novels, but with a slight twist: The estranged husband is now faced with his wife and her male lover. The landscape is the familiar sterile urban-to-suburban one of streets and rooms without character. Two Against One is a novel of passage, in which the events center on the protagonist’s fortieth birthday. Yet the thick undergrowth of relationships within the triangle remains tangled and dark.

In Natural Selection, Barthelme gives a new twist to his standard subject of marriage. A bored husband in midlife crisis has a wife and son who agree to his renting separate quarters and coming home to eat meals and spend time with them. Just as the family seems about to get back together, the novel ends with a car crash on the freeway.

Barthelme, a leading voice of the New South, refuses to write in the lush style of traditional southern writing. Indeed, he has been charged with being a minimalist, a writer who focuses on small moments in small lives. With The Brothers–and its sequel, Painted Desert–Barthelme began to gain a larger and more appreciative audience, although his style, themes, and characters come from the same landscape as had marked his earlier works.

The critic Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., wrote that “at first glance” the world of The Brothers “appears far from wondrous,” yet he also noted that critics who find minimalism to be anorexic cannot apply that description to Barthelme’s fiction, for his focus on the commonplace suggests that “the ordinary can be the site of transfiguration.” Barthelme’s Painted Desert centers on a road trip to Los Angeles where the characters are headed to avenge atrocities they have seen while watching old news footage of the Los Angeles riots. The novel’s action zanily incorporates Internet technology, and critics applauded the work’s quirky humor and postmodern sensibility, associating Barthelme’s prose style with that of Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, and Raymond Carver.

In the novel Bob the Gambler, a married couple decides to visit casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They begin a downward slide into obsession and debt, but they also rediscover their love and sense of mutual commitment.

BibliographyBrinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. “Suburban Culture, Imaginative Wonder: The Fiction of Frederick Barthelme.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 27 (Fall, 1994). Discusses Barthelme’s fiction in terms of the southern tradition and its examination of place. Ties Barthelme’s evocation of suburban mystery to the grotesque, concluding that Barthelme’s fiction celebrates wonder.Peters, Timothy. “The Eighties Pastoral: Frederick Barthelme’s Moon Deluxe Ten Years On.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Spring, 1994): 175-195. Begins by comparing Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) to Barthelme’s fiction. Engages critics who disparage Barthelme’s writing by arguing that it confronts the dreamscape of contemporary suburban America.Sheppard, R. Z. “Out of the Blue.” Time, September 10, 1990. Discusses Natural Selection.
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