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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Alienated Characters and Invisible Settings BY MICHAEL KING AND HE TELLS THE LITTLE HORSE THE WHOLE STORY By Steve Barthelme Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987 147 pages, $14.95 FROM ITS lambent title and epigraph, both out of Chekhov the whole line reads, “Iona’s feelings are too much for him, and he tells the little horse the whole story” it would appear that Steve Barthelme imagines his stories steeped in Chekhovian melancholy, nostalgic, and forgiving. And a few of them are: the narrator of “Black Jack,” the opening story, like poor Iona, remembers wistfully his long-dead father’s reminiscences of a transient childhood: I am 30 but I understand what he told me. I would like, myself, to have card games. We could get Black Jack Pershing to play, and old Mister, and Mister’s boy, my grandfather, would tell outrageous lies about tiny men who live in clocks, and my father would laugh, and nobody would tell him, or me for that matter, that we had made the same mistake our whole lives long. Yet the narrator’s own moroseness is not quite in keeping with the vitality of his 70year-old father, recounting how as a boy he traveled alone from El Paso to Baltimore, refusing every attempt of the conductor to lend him a hand. “The train went north, then to Fort Worth and Dallas. The first night he gave me a pillow and blanket. He was a decent old guy, but my mother had made him my enemy. I wasn’t friendly, but I couldn’t think of a reason not to take the pillow. But I wouldn’t take the blanket. I slept in my coat and tie. He probably thought I was the world’s biggest brat.” My father laughed. “I probably was the world’s biggest brat.” “Black Jack” works because of the insouciance of the old man’s voice and because of the interplay between that voice and its somber recollection by the 30-year Michael King writes on books and the arts from Houston. old son, now old enough to begin to forgive his father for the usual sins: divorce, absence, insignificance. Two or three of the stories catch a similar combination of energy and regret, and significantly, like “Black Jack,” they have central characters of a certain age, somehow His men and women tend to inarticulate remoteness. more interesting than the thirtysomething milieu which dominates most of the stories. “Mrs. Sims” is a friendly and energetic widow who puts her young neighbor to work re-sodding her lawn, and who proudly fends off the attempts of her feckless daughter and son-in-law to condescend to her age. Stoner, of “Stoner’s Lament,” at 70 hasn’t quite Mrs. Sims’s vitality, but he too defies his age in clumsily facing down an impudent youth on the street. His lament is more than a little hollow, and he has nowhere to go with it, but Barthelme is full of empathy with these elders holding back age, and like them he seems to be generally suspicious of the younger and more malevolent world, so eager to cast them aside. This empathy would be less noteworthy were not its author himself a young man, and were not the remainder of the stories dominated almost exclusively by younger characters for whom Barthelme can spare precious little empathy at all, and much less sympathy. Most of the stories in the collection concern the rather aimless goingson of young people, occasionally universitytown post-students but more often unattached amblers who appear to have come from nowhere, arrived without visible baggage, and be en route to no specific destination. They attempt intermittent connection without, unsurprisingly, a great deal of success, and they drift off into solitude and anomie once again. That summary smooths over a good many distinctions among the 17 stories collected in Barthelme’s first book, but the overall impression of the book is something less than the sum of its parts. To his credit, Barthelme’s deracinated youth seem to have little in common with the hypothetical “yuppie” that is, the young and the rich who flit through too much contemporary prose. The bartenders, teachers, and idlers who populate the stories appear to have as little connection to money as they have to each other, and perhaps too much of their aimlessness comes from their author’s reluctance to place them, to give them a habitation with a name. Barthelme himself is originally from Texas \(he now teaches at the University of almost recognizable Texas locales: Austin, Houston, Big Bend, or the highways in between. The stories gain some bite when their characters \(the garrulous father of show some Texas or southern roots; too often the settings are essentially invisible could be anywhere, which is to say, nowhere or are used only for easy condescension, as when two aimless travelers stop to see Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, and can’t make head or tails of it. Barthelme’s instincts, when he trusts them, start to build up for his characters little worlds of history and connectedness as in “Zorro,” when a young man travels weekly from Austin to Houston, trying in vain to care for an alcoholic and demanding mother, and slowly wrecking his own life in the process. Here the melancholy is earned, and telling; more often it is difficult to feel for protagonists whose agon is so alien, because so rootless and unidentifiable. I have a feeling I may be arguing not with Barthelme’s stories but with his time or at least that is how he might answer me. It has now become almost a given of contemporary fiction that the life it chronicles is alienated, dissolute, without serious connection. It may even appear to be so, much of the time, and yet it would seem that at least one of the tasks of fiction is to discover some coherence, some rhythm, underlying the seemingly random and arbitrary passage of ordinary life. With 16 APRIL 8, 1988