If Wallace Webster, the protagonist and narrator of Frederick Barthelme's 11th novel, There Must Be Some Mistake, were to describe his relationship status on the Internet he so avidly searches, it would read: "It's Complicated." Barthelme's arch take on one ordinary man's effort to navigate the shoals of midlife in the company of "practically a bevy of women," as Wallace's ex-wife puts it, is a consistently entertaining, at times elegiac, look at some intriguing cul-de-sacs of contemporary American society.
When 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 the "spectacularly kitschy" town of Kemah, on the Texas Gulf Coast, a place with a "worn-out feel, some godforsakenness that drifted through the air like Latin music." 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 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 at least one 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 our neighbors that's become one of the defining characteristics of modern life. More than that, Barthelme suggests, is how unknowable, and truly strange, the lives of others often are.
Even as Wallace leads a life that can only be described as adrift, he never wanders off onto irony's seductive path. "Where's the harm in a little blind faith," he asks, "a little hope in the face of the grotesque spectacle of ordinary life in this century?" In a novel that might have foundered in a sea of cynicism, Barthelme, in the end, manages to salvage something that looks suspiciously like a glimmer of hope. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
Shelf Talker: Bizarre events and characters at a Texas Gulf Coast condominium provide a wry look at a slice of contemporary America in Frederick Barthelme's 11th novel.