The Nervous Breakdown Interview

By Gary Percesepe
October 28, 2014

Frederick Barthelme is the author of fourteen previous books of fiction. Until 2010, he directed the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi Review. He now edits New World Writing, an online magazine started in 1995.

I’ve known Barthelme for about twenty years or so, more or less to the day, which would be the day I showed up in Hattiesburg to interview him. Two hours before our scheduled interview I was still scratching out questions in a battered notebook, distracted by a gaggle of teenaged girls tugging at pale bikini tops, USM first year students who I was pretty sure would not wind up in any of his classes but could easily show up somewhere in one of his novels, wisecracking their way through another scene of exquisite and heartrending longing, dialogue going off like cherry bombs through the junk landscape of the Mississippi coast. Later, I’d come on board the old Mississippi Review, which morphed into New World Writing, with brief layovers in something called Rick Magazine, later Stand Away from the Vehicle, and Blip. With the help of some of his former students we’d also put together a private journal of opinion called Public Scrutiny, which died a dignified death some years back. I’m saying I’ve known Barthelme a bit, and publicly raved about his work in various places, particularly his novel The Brothers, featuring Del Tribute and his much younger sidekick Jen, two of his most memorable characters, who team up again in Painted Desert. These novels were preceded by a remarkable short story collection, Moon Deluxe, which vamped out onto a world of glittery surfaces, shimmering pools and parking lots painted with Halogen light, the male of the species hiding, the women steering, the world never lovelier or more addled. Two Against One was a fiercely observed meditation on divorce and the geometry of loss, the kind of writing about love triangles that puts a little shade on Updike, or at least his imitators. Before that, Tracer was a bullet of love shot from a shiny cinematic pistol, another middle-aged man, this one caught between two sisters, a sliver of a novel, a sharpened shiv replenishing the language of loss. Elroy Nights ventured onto the college campus and skewered the academic novel of manners, writing on the back side of a student-professor postcard. Double Down, a memoir he wrote with younger brother Steve, is a lyrical and poignant remembrance of his parents set against the backdrop of adventures in gambling; charged with “dumping the game” in collusion with a blackjack dealer, the brothers landed on the front page of the New York Times, and, briefly, in jail, before they were exonerated of all charges. Tempting Irony, Inc., Barthelme had authored a novel prior to his arrest called Bob the Gambler, a fact which the Times wryly noted (while missing others, of the exculpatory kind). And his last novel, Waveland, five years in the making, set this time on the post-Katrina Mississippi coast, which Barthelme has sturdily made his own, as deftly as Thomas Hardy invented Wessex, England. It’s been quite a run. He’s still at large. I’m grateful.

I like the way the new book is summarized on Barthelme’s Facebook page, from Harvey Freedenberg at Shelf Awareness:

When Wallace Webster is eased out of his partnership at a Houston design firm, he’s at an awkward age–too young to pack it in, too old to start over. His response is to retreat to his condominium in a “spectacularly kitschy” Gulf Coast town. The nearly constant presence of attractive women in his life–from his platonic relationship with Jilly, a coworker only slightly older than his daughter, to his fitful affair with Chantal White, a sexy restaurant owner with a dark past–somehow fails to brighten his mood. Life at Forgetful Bay Condominiums is anything but placid. One resident dies in a car crash, and Chantal is tied up by an intruder who covers her with blue paint. That’s only in the novel’s first 15 pages, before the mass mailbox thefts, the nude dancer in the driveway of the homeowners’ association president and a suicide. One can only imagine the residents’ dismay at what a character calls an “appalling parade of unlikely events.” The bizarre happenings at the sleepy condos highlight the disconnection from neighbors that’s become one of the defining characteristics of modern life. More than that, Frederick Barthelme (Waveland) suggests, is how unknowable, and truly strange, the lives of others often are.

 Even as Wallace leads a life that can be described only as adrift, he never wanders off onto irony’s seductive path. There Must Be Some Mistake might have foundered in a sea of cynicism, but in the end Barthelme manages to salvage something that looks suspiciously like a glimmer of hope.

Frederick Barthelme, welcome to The Nervous Breakdown.

* * *

You seem to have entered your Russian period. There Must Be Some Mistake has a large cast of characters. I wanted a Tolstoy-like roster in the front of the book. Most of these are women, both the principal characters and the walk-ons. Sometimes I wanted to see more development in some of the characters. I especially loved Tinker, Chantal White’s daughter, who seems to have derived some of her aesthetic theory from Jen in The Brothers. The men seem dazed and confused, roosters strutting, some control issues. The women steer things. Pretty much like real life, if there were such a thing.

Don’t we all seem to have casts of characters in our lives, people we know, used to know, see occasionally, run into now and then, call on the phone, email with, people who make up our routine encounters? I’m thinking each one adds something to our lives, to the fabric of the thing. If Tinker recalls Jen from The Brothers it’s probably because I always like to have a nutcase or two around to speak for truth and craziness. As a general rule in the world, I prefer the nutcases. In Mistake we have a small surplus, borderline folk like Cal, Chantal, a couple of the neighbors, a jailer or two, who are unbound, so to speak. Each of them brings something uniquely off-center and illuminating to the story.

There is some police interrogation that adds a nice tension in the novel, and reminded me of scenes from the memoir you wrote with your brother Steve, Double Down. In general, the police are possibly idjits? Could maybe find employment in Ferguson.

Cops are okay. They’ve got a crap job and some are crap humans. The rest are probably just like the rest of us. As much as we pretend otherwise, we’re all kind of idjits, aren’t we? In Double Down, the casino management was kind of dumb, but we didn’t deal much with cops, mostly lawyers, prosecutors, gaming commission people. Most of them were okay, they just had bad information from the casino. The cops at the prison where we were booked were perfectly friendly and jovial, as I remember. We were terrified, of course.

How did you start this book?

I started with the idea that even if you live a timid life, violence and death seem to rush at you as you grow older. Maybe it’s just accumulation, but after a while you’ve been in a car crash or two, had a car stolen out from under you, been held at gunpoint a couple times, you’ve lost friends to drug deals, known people killed in robberies, in marriages, encountered your share of neighborhood violence, been caught in crossfire, whatever. And you’ve snuggled up to a fair bit of death and injury by natural means, heart attacks to car crashes, visitor’s hours in hospitals. So much so that eventually all that stuff seems to make up a disproportionate part of your life. This kind of became a central thread.

The novel has more “plot” than some of your previous novels, yes?

There’s lots of plot, but I’m messing with it all the time, frustrating it, trying to get the benefits of it in the narrative without tying the whole story down to the usual dramaturgical pyramid. There are some core strands that develop and resolve, but not necessarily in a traditional way. These plot fragments become transitory drivers for the story. We spend time following them as they develop, then veer into other bits of business, and all the while we’re wandering through the full arc of the novel.

This is the place where I ask you about the “big social novel in America” and tick off the names (and possibly egos) of innumerable literary “giants” in the land whose names may or may not be Franzen and I can’t remember any others, and observe how you work away from the allegedly great to embrace the tiny. Less, better. Small ball. You’ve been playing like this for a while, and I see you are not going to change now. Bravo. But why? Remind us.

Those books seem like TV to me. They never get the particulars right, and often they’re not close, so they end up parodies of experience—bound and readable TV shows. Many readers are comfortable with that, so there’s a huge market and lots of people, from the well known to the publish-it-yourself writers at Amazon, are eager to deliver the product. Like good movies, good literary books are fewer and smaller and harder to find.

Dare I ask yet again what you think of “minimalism” from this distance of years. You were, as I recall, charged with this crime by the lit police in the 1980s.

Minimalism is an old and dear friend. Start with the idea that I began as a painter, and minimalism was a term used in painting and sculpture a couple decades before it was applied in the literary arts. It had real descriptive value in painting and sculpture, but less so in fiction, where it took on the pejorative dimension not present in criticism of the plastic arts. When it was used stupidly it just seemed stupid to me. I guess, thinking back, that was ninety-nine percent of the time. It is interesting, though, how art ideas seem to be born in the plastic arts and to arrive in literary work years later.

In newspaper reviews and criticism of the 80s minimalism was a simple-minded way of referring to certain work that relied on flatness of tone, a disinclination to excessive interiority, or preaching, or bad verbal gymnastics, and other characteristics too numerous to mention. What was actually going on was that a few writers were trying to find a way to rejuvenate representational writing after the “experimental” writers of the sixties, who, as they were disagreeing with the “manly” realism of the earlier twentieth-century (Hemingway, Mailer, etc.), had more or less tossed that representational baby out with the bathwater. The minimalist kids imagined that their work was as experimental as that of their immediate predecessors, just in a radically different way, and it was, like it’s predecessors’ work, done in hopes of finding a new way to see and react to a world in hyperdrive. Nevertheless, many who did not quite “get it” hurled brickbats and anvils, thus wounding the baby.

Remember, too, we’re talking about writers who were weaned on Sterne, Joyce, Beckett, Burroughs, Barth, Calvino, Cortazar, Marquez, and others. They elected to pay more attention to some of the quieter writing of Tanizaki, Kawabata, Cheever, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys and a host of others who imagined that representational writing was still worth doing.

Ann Beattie has given you a nice blurb for the novel. In 2010, I read to Ann a doc you sent me in an email, which we both loved. Actually, we chortled. When I was reading Mistake I was delighted to see that you re-worked that material into a section on “cowardice.” Ditto with a NYC scene I assume is with Nico, whom you have renamed “Plastique.” I love how you continue to cannibalize your own work and stitch together stuff that maybe shouldn’t go together, but somehow does. Can you say a word about your “process” here?

As a construction strategy I like piecing unrelated things together, especially when you wouldn’t imagine they could be put together. That challenge is a big part of the pleasure. So here you’ve got bits of failed stories, twenty-year-old beginnings, essays, notes, vignettes, book proposals, nonfiction pieces, asides and reminders, fragments of letters—everything shoveled into the maw. The job is to make it work, make it seamless, and that’s the fun part. It’s not collage, it’s re-integration. You keep rewriting until it works. One of the virtues of this “method” is that the book gets littered with surprises, which, as a writer, is a supreme benefit. It gives you plenty to work with when wrangling the overall book, since you’re dealing with stuff from many old closets. It keeps you interested, keeps you on your toes.

What happens is that the rewriting, which is the heart and soul of writing, eventually folds everything into a cohesive whole, at least that’s the hope. The Plastique scene is indeed, a rendering of a Genuine Human Experience I had with a brilliant chanteuse and her band, in days of old. However, I cannot confirm or deny that the chanteuse and the person you mention above are, or could be, one and the same.

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant famously asked, “For what may we hope?” How to hope? It’s still an important question. But reading Kant’s essays on “What is Enlightenment” and “Perpetual Peace” today seem like exercises in cockamamie optimism. Some have said this is the “postmodern condition.” To anyone paying attention, the news out there is not so good. Today Ebola, yesterday Kardashians. I’ve always believed that your writing oscillated between hope and despair, making all the world a stage, or at least a TV studio, lacing the passing spectacle with shots of humor to see us through, entrusting your characters with dialogue that’s cryptic but true. Comic relief. But am I wrong to think that your writing is getting bleaker, darker? I would say that your work since Painted Desert, dealing with the OJ thing, has been a matter of locating a small but essential vocabulary of hope, one that is vomit-proof in a diseased age.

I guess I tend to think the world we live in is much coarser than the world of yore, notwithstanding the KKK, Buchenwald and Treblinka, public executions, Loeb-Leopold, the Romans, etc., but I could have that wrong. Still, even given these horrors, ours seem their equal, and maybe more personal (which goes to the kind of coarseness I’m thinking of). Things are just a mess and maybe it’s just that everything is televised and promoted and publicized and Internetized and Tweeted and Tumblered and Facebooked and so on, so that we are constantly awash in filth, grime, cruelty, human discharge, disgusting bodily fluids, the private pus and colostomy bags of our friends and neighbors. Even if the world is not coarser, it often seems a shabbier place than this world once was. People are mean. Consider our amusements and those of our parents. Disregard the Romans.

I’m hoping that I’m all wet about this, just being picky and fastidious. And besides, I tend to love all the junk we do, and build, and manufacture, and embrace, just not the meanness of us. Here in America we’ve got none of that Euro-fussiness bothering us, just ever-loving greed and desire running the show.

There Must Be Some Mistake in these terms promotes a method for countering the trend toward coarseness, and that method has to do with declining to embrace it even as you find in yourself, which is, maybe, one of the original impulses toward religion. We can be better people in a small way on the small stages of our personal lives, and the book offers characters some of whom seem to have managed to discover decency as a core value, who experience and recognize the cruel and grotesque and merciless without producing a lot of it themselves, and in not doing so set a goal for all of us.

Speaking of the junk we do, I loved the opening section–“Junk Town.” The junk culture of the Gulf Coast might as well be listed on your Tolstoyesque List of Principal Characters. You’re still mesmerized by water and pool light and parking lots, it appears. And car washes. Religious statuary. Large bunnies. Dinosaurs. It appears our writerly obsessions never go away?

Yeah, I still like the dim, sad, ugly and stupid, the giant gorilla, the sappy miniature golf course, and the shiny God-given water. Recently we moved from the dubiously livable Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Destin, Florida, an island (more or less) on the Gulf Coast, where the water is clear and sparklingly green, and the sand is iPhone-white. There’s a lot of goop here, but it’s harmless and charming goop, so I’m kind of pleased overall. I wonder about people who hate the junk we fill our physical world with. What are they complaining about? It’s us all over, a perfect mirror of our inner selves, especially of those who complain about it the most. Our built world is a chunky, kaleidoscopic, monumental self portrait. Upside down buildings and zebras on the lawn! And just look at the architectural self-portraits of our friends and neighbors around the world, Dubai, Hong Kong, Iceland, Peru! How can we not love the dejected, matter-of-fact, cookie-cutter architecture of our malls, apartments, mid-rise condos? And our beautiful soaring highways! Self portraits all.

Why did you choose give title headings to the chapters of this novel? It added a nice layer, I thought, kind of Talmudic. Barthelme midrash?

Suggesting a particular feel with a word or two is great fun. The titles add echoing starts to the chapters, provide something extra to think about, some “subject matter” to bother the mind while reading. And I liked the slight story-like separation between chapters, allowing the content to accumulate while at the same time providing a tiny rest stop, like a roadside vista for the reader before going on. The distant fog over the land, etc.

Cheever wrote, somewhere in his journals, “In middle age there is mystery, there is mystification. The most I can make out of this hour is a kind of loneliness. Even the beauty of the visible world seems to crumble, yes even love. I feel that there has been some miscarriage, some wrong turning, but I do not know when it took place and I have no hope of finding it.” How does that square with your title?

Perfectly. Though it may be the inflatable version, super maudlin division. Apologies to the author.

Finally, dogs. We’ve got another happy dog here in this novel, and that is no mistake. This one is a spaniel by the name of Leo. Dogs are generally happy, possibly because they’ve not read Heidegger, and thus missed the part about Sein-zum-Tode, being thrown toward death, the existential condition. Humans have no such luck. Dogs are aware, certainly, but we are aware that we are aware, which complicates things. I always thought that Tolstoy lacked dogs in his work. If he had paid more attention to dogs, might we have had a different opening line to Anna Karenina: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The dogs. What would we do without them? They present us with a model of ideal life—serene, content, affable, reactive, smiling, easy to please, comfortable in their skins, perfect companions. I could go on, but none of this has anything to do with the dog in the book. The dog in the book is a howdy to my stepdaughter who owns a very nice dog named Leo.

But with the Heidegger thing you have me dead to rights. I hope that the book is about, finally, being “thrown toward death.” This feeling, which is not so much of a bother when you’re a youngster, becomes more troubling as you cross your majority and sail into your “later years.” People begin dying all around you and you can’t help noticing. “Oh? She’s gone?” Yes, she is. Dead as a doornail. And her and him, and those guys, and these two other fellas. Bang. In time your Contact List is littered with the dead. So. What do you do? Do you erase them? This is a terrible question and one which, in a small way, the novel hopes to reflect upon.


GARY PERCESEPE is Associate Editor at New World Writing (formerly Mississippi Review) and a contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. Author of four books in philosophy, Percesepe’s fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, The Millions, Brevity, PANK, Metazen, Short Story America, The Brooklyner, and other places. Percesepe has two new books coming out from Pure Slush Books on November 10: A collection of short fiction, Itch, and a collection of poetry, Falling. His collection of short stories, Why I Did the Grocery Girl, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books. He is Interim Pastor at Church of the Nativity in Buffalo, New York.