Introduction to The Law of Averages

I started adult life as a painter, reading art magazines and trying to figure out what was going on in New York from the relative comfort of Houston.  This was the sixties. I was studying architecture, and my brother Don visited and suggested I become a painter. So I did.  I made crude, aggressive, Lester Johnson pictures—lots of paint slapped around some basic human image, a head, a circle with a neck.  The painting became more interesting as I ran through twentieth-century painting at about two hours per year, so that by 1965, showing in Houston, I was doing concept art, putting tape on walls, performance pieces.  I began writing fiction, doing mostly the kind of Tonka-surrealism that plagues undergraduate writing programs even today. Sand mutants and people turning into pancakes.  Soon enough I was thrown out of the architectural school for designing a multimedia performance piece instead of the parking garage my instructor had assigned.  So I moved to the art department and started playing music and making sixteen-millimeter films with Mayo Thompson.  We started a band called the Red Crayola in 1965, and after touring a little in California in 1967, and recording three LPs (Parable of Arable Land, Coconut Hotel, and a never-released album recorded in Berkeley in 1967 with John Fahey), I quit the band and moved to New York to be a painter. There I hung around with Don, who was thirteen years older and a successful writer and editor. He was still relatively new to the city, having moved there in 1964 to edit Location for Harold Rosenberg and Tom Hess.

Don and I were not peers.  He was the mentor I entrusted with my education. He was unfailingly generous and took the job. We went all over New York. He took me to see the mysterious Viking street musician Moondog, aka Louis T. Hardin, and as we left, walking down some moonlit New York street, Don recited his favorite made-up mock-romantic poem — “O Tree / Standing there displaying human hopes and aspirations . . . ”  It trailed off like that. It was funny. We went for drinks, we went to museums, we went to jazz clubs, restaurants, more museums, the Top of the Sixes. We talked about art, writing, music, politics, consumer electronics—stereos, turntables, speakers, the better to hear the music—and groceries. He wasn’t so excited about conceptual art. He was sort of Art News, I was utterly Artforum. He wasn’t thrilled by the noisy and messy Red Crayola LP I brought for him, even though I’d acquired my interest in Cage, and chance music, and noise years before while working for Don as a gofer at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. He ran the museum. I was one of the installation guys. I helped with the crashed-cars set for the Arrabal play, helped hang the paintings, swept the place, chauffeured when luminaries wanted to ride around town. I’d driven Cage and David Tudor when they were there for a concert. I was completely swept away by Cage’s music, and that’s what I’d brought to the band, so the noise and mess were in large measure my contribution, but Don wasn’t sold.  We had different ideas about art, as it turned out, but I was in the ballpark, so in spite of the odd arched eyebrow, I was encouraged to go my own way.

Two years after I moved to New York, in 1969, someone wanted to commission Don to do a book in a bag—loose sheets, read ’em in any order, that sort of thing.  He said it was a silly idea, and he didn’t want to do it.  So he sent them to me. I said it was a silly idea, and I would be happy to do it.  I figured it would be pleasant to have a contract.  Daniel Spoerri’s Anecdoted Topography of Chance had been published in 1966, so there was recent precedent for a book that wasn’t quite a book, in the conventional sense. And the idea of book-as-container fit nicely with my by now waning interest in conceptual art. That “career” had prospered in a small way—I was in Joseph Kosuth’s original conceptual art exhibit at the Museum of Normal Art, and in Seth Siegelaub’s first “virtual” show, which was a catalog of sorts, and I’d shown in galleries in New York and elsewhere, a couple of traveling shows put together by the critic Lucy Lippard, and I’d soon show at the New York Cultural Center and the Museum of Modern Art—but concept art seemed terribly dry, and I’d come to the conclusion that it might not sustain me.

So I took the commission from Winter House and produced Rangoon, a hybrid of stories, faux stories, nonstories, drawings, photos, diagrams, lists, assertions, visual art games, and whatnot. I put in it what was handy, but the thing turned out disappointingly conventional, though I’m still fond of the dumb stories, the diagrams of plumbing, the black pages, and my premiere bad photography show—sixty cheesy, shot-on-the-fly out-the-car-window photographs.  I like many of Mayo Thompson’s drawings, and I’m proud to have accounted for the first appearance in fiction of Carl Sagan’s and I. S. Shklovskii’s equation for determining the number of extant civilizations in the universe interested in and capable of interstellar communication. I guess I like the whole thing. It’s damned odd. Makes you wonder who put it together and why.

Shortly thereafter I got a deal with Doubleday for another book, eventually called War & War because that was the prospective title that got the biggest laugh at Don’s dinner table one night (you had to be there).  War & War was stranger than the first book, a patchwork of lifts from Scientific American, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Mademoiselle, and a hundred other sources, a cigar box of little drawings, personal letters, tests, captions, commentaries on the book’s construction, found and annotated photos, sketches, diagrams of carnal pleasures, outlines of study-guide philosophy, bits of biography. There was a diary component, as I recall. It’s fun to look at now because it induces a kind of data vertigo. It’s not held together by much more than the binding, and one is hard pressed to imagine the guiding principles behind its construction.

These weren’t literary works of any kind, really. They were books about me at a certain time in my life, excited about a lot of things, interested in everything, unwilling to play by the rules, or even to try to discover what the rules were. The books were Dumpsters for half-digested information, half-realized ideas; they recognized, even revered, the haphazard.  Were they good?  Probably not, but good was beside the point. They were messages in bottles, loose signals in the night sky, and what they were saying was simple: Hey. I’m awake. Are you?

Years later, when I began publishing stories in the New Yorker, I started getting letters from an agent in New York. After each story appeared in the magazine a letter would arrive telling me what a nice story it was.  In a year I got maybe a half dozen such letters.  Eventually came a phone call from the not-yet-notorious agent Andrew Wylie. He was the most remarkable man. He was funny and sweet, sensitive, brighter and better educated than almost anyone I’d ever met, killingly hip, utterly genuine, and completely direct. I think I loved him from that first phone call—his voice, his jokes, the play-savage laughter, the slightly demented cackle. I didn’t know who he was or where he’d come from, but I knew instantly that he was smarter and faster than I was, and I wanted him to represent me. Happily, that’s what he was calling about. Later, when we were putting together the first book proposal, it was Andrew who suggested we simply not mention these first two books and instead start over with a new collection of New Yorker stories.  He thought it best not to remind publishers, and eventually critics and reviewers, of the earlier nonliterary efforts—too hard to explain, too easily misunderstood. So that’s what we did, and what we’ve done all these years. Later I would learn that he had his own volumes of concrete poetry discreetly buried.

So this author’s note is my first acknowledgment of the heretofore disinherited mangy first bastard children that now take their rightful places at the beginning of the “Also by Frederick Barthelme” list. They are clumsy art objects and mercifully rare collector’s items, but I am happy to have them back with me, brain-damaged or not.

Why am I telling you this now?  In part because I have the opportunity, but also to explain something about the book you’re holding in your hands.

After the publication in 1970 and 1971 of those first two books, and after another ten years of woodshedding, publishing in literary magazines, writing and not-publishing, having books rejected once written, after returning to school at Johns Hopkins to get John Barth’s help, well, the stories gradually became more literary, more like “stories,” and eventually it seemed as if I might actually have a career as a “literary” writer. So I sent stories routinely to Roger Angell, Don’s editor at the New Yorker, and Roger returned each one with a helpful and encouraging word.

In late summer 1980 Roger was away doing his annual baseball work when my story “Shopgirls,” which opens this collection, arrived at the magazine. The writer and editor Veronica Geng read the story for Roger and wrote a startlingly genuine hand-scrawled rejection note saying she’d liked the story, though not quite enough to publish it, and would I send more?

That letter was the first rejection I’d ever gotten that sounded more like an invitation than a rejection. “Pool Lights,” the second story in this collection, was the story I sent Veronica in November 1980. She bought it and it became, in July 1981, my first New Yorker publication.

“Shopgirls” eventually found a home at Esquire.

So, at the age of thirty-eight, as a result of the happy accident of Veronica sitting in for Roger, I had my second run at a publishing career.  Until then I hadn’t really had the pleasure of being thoroughly and carefully edited, and I must admit I was skeptical about it. I was, after all, the artist.  But working with Veronica was eye-opening.  As reader and editor she was the best the New Yorker had.  She got everything.  Send her a story, and she would not miss one single whisper that was in it.  It’s routine for editors to get a good portion of what you put into stories, but it’s unheard of for an editor to miss nothing, to hear every feint, every verbal gesture, every shading, every embedded, even not-quite-understood, suggestion in the work. Every sentence, every line. Every time. Without exception.  Working with Veronica Geng over a story was like making love—a delicate, playful, rich, energetic, mutual, and intimate investigation. This was true in the eight years I worked with her at the magazine, and in other editing she did for me as a favor after she’d been forced out at the New Yorker.  As an editor she was exquisite and without equal.  She more or less gave me a new career by reading my stories as well as they could be read, by adding to them, participating in them, making them sites for our mutual celebration of a world by which we were both stunned and endlessly amused. In those early days in 1980, and in the years that followed, her reading of my work, as well as her love and friendship, which I returned in equal measure, made the career that she made possible worth having.  It is more than a little less valuable now that she’s gone.

But why were the stories themselves good enough to get Veronica’s attention?  I believe it was because I’d finally dealt with the problem that faces any writer who has a much more famous writer as a brother—I stumbled upon a kind of work that had its own virtues and could not be confused with his. This was no small feat.  At that time Don was everywhere.  People were copping his stuff left and right. As his brother, however, I wasn’t going to be allowed to do that, and after years of being his student and sharing something of the same sensibility, getting out from under was easier said than done. It happened gradually as I discovered new aspects of writing to be interested in. I came to think that character was a richer kind of language than language itself. I became more interested in representation than fantasy.  I grew fond of the mundane because of the way it spoke of us all.  These and a score of other thoughts finally came together to make clear a new way of working. The idea came to me in the form of a barbecued chicken of the type you buy precooked at the grocery store. I bought one, one summer day. And it amazed me.  I was thrilled by how wonderful and grotesque this prefab, plastic-wrapped, aluminum-panned, shrinking, falling-apart, sweet-smelling chicken was.  Somehow it was the culture.  Delighted, in some kind of swoon about this exquisite chicken, I sat right down and started writing “Shopgirls.”

So when you see those chickens that Andrea brings into the Casa del Sol apartment in the story, please be respectful, because from those tiny chickens mighty “Shopgirls” sprang, and from “Shopgirls” the growing realization that I had found an angle on story writing that had not been touched by Don, could not be traced to Don, was not Don-influenced or -suggested, was in no way indebted to him.  Ordinary was what he was not about.

For good measure, I added this twist—literary types, Don included, always seemed to write about people in extraordinary circumstances.  Cultural issues, personal crises, drug addictions, terrible accidents, diseases, wars, deaths, rapes, violence of every kind, magic times, epiphanies, et cetera.  My idea—and I can remember the thrill of this even now—was to write about ordinary people in plain circumstances—going to the store, dinner with neighbors, people at the pool, time at the office, camping in the backyard, sitting in the parking lot at the mall. This interest in the ordinary set my stories apart not only from Don’s, but also from almost everyone else’s as well, and it felt as though, at a single stroke, I had discovered the solution to all of my literary, not to mention spiritual, problems—what I was most interested in, the world as reflected in the details of our routine lives, could be gotten on the page and made literary. Veronica’s encouraging rejection letter, and the eventual purchase of “Pool Lights,” provided the confirmation I was looking for.

There are in this book twenty-nine pieces that you could think of as stories out of “Shopgirls” by “Pool Lights.”  There have been other kinds of stories written and published over the years, but these are all from this particular line, though even here the ideas have changed over time, the worlds of the characters have grown and contracted, the problems have sometimes become more pointed, sometimes vanished altogether. And in more than one, looking at them now, the ordinary part doesn’t seem so ordinary any more.

When I started this note I wanted to say a word or two about why the stories are what they are, how they are constructed, and what they mean to me, but I didn’t want to say too much. I wanted to thank you who have read them all these years, and to confess that I sometimes write in disorderly ways. I’ll write stories that get folded into novels, only to get extracted again and published as stories years later. In a few cases I’ll take parts of novels and turn them into stories after the fact, either reworking material, or pulling it out whole if it seems to me sufficiently sustaining.  Often almost-completed stories just sit on the hard disk, never bothering to go to market, only to show up later rewritten as sections of novels. I like to get a head start on a novel, and if I have a couple of stories lying about, well, I’ll just shuffle them together, change the names and places, and genders, and so on, to suit, and suddenly have sixty pages of a beginning draft of a longer work.

It’s been this way since the time at the New Yorker when Mr. Shawn suggested to Veronica, and she to me, that the story “The Browns” was something new for me and might bear some elaboration. So in Second Marriage I stitched together “The Browns” and a couple other stories to get the foundation for the novel. Tracer had something of the same origin. As I recall, the novel Two Against One contains a story or two, though by now I’d be hard put to find them, because the pieces become so much a part of the larger work, even if sentence by sentence they are not that different from their story versions. Some other stories, like “Larroquette,” “The Great Pyramids,” and “Travel & Leisure,” were written as stories and not published thus until after their use in novels.  “Spots” is a rewrite of a scene that was used in a novel but has here been given a new, and twisted, ending.  One piece, “Bag Boy,” is an all-out after-the-fact rewrite of a novel section. It was originally a story, but an unpublished and unsuccessful one. After I used it in Painted Desert, I needed a piece for Ethan Canin’s Writers Harvest 2 anthology, so I took the rewritten novel version of the story and rewrote it again, adding new characters, revising the action, making a new and better piece altogether.  This is to say that I feel no qualms about hacking up my work and putting it back together to suit different purposes. If I like something as a story I’ll use it as a story, then sometimes redo it for use in a novel. Less frequently I find parts of novels that can “become” stories.  Originally, of course, this was economic necessity—if you were working on a novel you always tried to sell parts of it as stories to drum up a little cash.

As for the stories here, they are arranged chronologically, new work at the back. I tried other arrangements, but they seemed artificial. I wanted the second-person stories to appear first, as they had in life—second person was so fresh in 1979 and 1980—and I wanted the stories to develop again through time, as they had originally. I also wanted the changing emotional focus to reveal itself in the book as it had over the years of writing the stories.  Ordering the book chronologically seemed eerily powerful, and avoided the dreaded “artful” arrangement.  Instead, the show opens in 1980 and closes in the year 2000, and in between we walk the scores of delicately shaded and intertwined paths these particular stories have variously followed these last twenty years.

I don’t want to try to characterize the drift of themes and interests in this collection with a single description. Indeed, I have the sense that would be possible only to the degree to which the description would be inadequate, not to say wrong. But just as you will find many small changes in these stories reading first to last, you will find many similarities between them. A pervasive interest in character, in people, in the tiny glimpses we get of each other in our actions and reactions, in the small expressions that reveal us completely. I’ve always loved setting and the physicality of place, even if I am never high on the sociology too often associated with them, so by all means take note of your surroundings. I like the way people talk, and the ways they might talk, and I adore the dance, the daily tango, the scarce movements we make toward and away from each other as we go about our ordinary lives.  These kinds of things you’ll find constants here, embedded in glances, gestures, objects, sights, smiles, the looks in people’s eyes, the sounds and the silences. You’ll also find a polite anarchy here, a deep-background political spine masquerading as disinterest, and a world something like the one you wander around in every day. I hope you will find people who do not despise what has become of America, but who look upon their lives with equal parts astonishment, skepticism, and resignation. And kindness, perhaps most of all. They love this world of maladjusted, inappropriate, wrongheaded, and foolish citizens, all the glop, and tripe, and gunk that make up our everyday lives, and they look on each other, and on us, with fondness and compassion, empathy, affection. These characters take what they’re given, and, while laughing at and ridiculing each other and themselves, they love the world as hard as they can.