From The New York Times
“ELROY NIGHTS is the kind of easygoing small-college art professor whom no one calls ”Professor.” His students call him Elroy; his stepdaughter, Winter, calls him Elroy; and his wife, Clare, is about to call him her ex. ”We lived on the water in D’Iberville, Mississippi, and things seemed strained,” Elroy tells us. Once Winter turned 18 and moved out, Elroy and Clare realized ”there wasn’t any life and death reason we had to be in the same house.”
“Spouseless and stripped of his ”cool prof” status, Elroy turns to that age-old remedy for the collegiate blues: road trip! (A plot contrivance? Maybe, but Barthelme’s writing is so good I’d follow Elroy to a paint-drying festival.) Elroy, Freddie and Winter motor to Memphis, then bump around Texas and Louisiana. Barthelme is famous for his dirty realist depictions of ordinary Americana, and these brilliant, subdued sketches of crummy motels — the Bayside Sleeper, the Hi-Lite, the Pine Tree Motor Lodge — will please anyone who’s endured a night in a $34.99 single.
“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. Late in the novel, Elroy wishes he’d had a chance to talk Works out of his window plunge. ”I’d want to explain something to him,” he says, ”something about being older and being tired and being cut off from things, feeling cut off, feeling as if you had once mattered and then something happened and you didn’t matter anymore — not to your wife, your friends, your colleagues, other painters, anybody. Sort of tell him how it works — maybe that’s what I would have done, though what I wonder is how that would have helped him.” This is just what Barthelme lays out for his readers. I don’t know why, but it is a help, knowing what’s coming and that it’s not going to be all cute grandchildren and career retrospectives. And being O.K. with that.
From the Boston Phoenix
“Barthelme’s novels are full of wise-ass remarks, but they’re also rich in Flaubertian descriptive details, the Flaubert rule being that, in the words of the critics Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate, “no object exists until it has acted upon or been acted upon by some other object.” This necessitates all five senses’ being engaged constantly, and Barthelme is, yes, a master of sensory detail. It accounts for some of his most exquisite writing. Sometimes that description is put in the service of suspense, as in Bob the Gambler, when the protagonist, reflecting for a moment in the Mississippi night air outside a dockside casino, contemplates his next move. Natural Selection (1990) ends with a sustained, dreamlike passage about a car wreck — all the more dreamlike for its detail. In an extended passage near the end of Elroy Nights, Elroy remembers his childhood, and Barthelme’s rhythms, his choice of objects, of sensory detail, accrues with an elegiac bitter sweetness. “I loved the gritty feel of my father’s chin, the way his eyes looked behind his rimless glasses, shining and strong, and the sound of his footsteps on the polished hardwood floors as he went to the hall mirror to tie his tie each morning. I loved his starched white shirts.” As Gordon and Tate might say, we see that starched shirt because we hear those footsteps.
“It’s these moments that redeem Barthelme’s characters, save them from the media glut, allow them their full engagement with life and their acts of kindness. Elroy offers condolences to his suicide student’s father, telling us, “These things that we said to each other seemed grotesque, not because they were untrue, but because they were so far from being the full truth.” In his details and gestures, Barthelme reclaims life from the grotesque, feeling from sentimentality. At the end of the novel, Elroy Nights’s life hasn’t become any easier, but he’s wholly in it, expectant. In his “minimal” gestures, Barthelme has given us a good measure of the full truth.”