Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

'80S Pastoral: Frederick Barthelme's 'Moon Deluxe' Ten Years On

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

'80S Pastoral: Frederick Barthelme's 'Moon Deluxe' Ten Years On

Article excerpt

There is a touch of the mythological and the enchanted in those large stores where according to ads a career girl can get a complete desk-to-date wardrobe, and where little sister can dream of the day when her wool jersey will make the boys in the back row of the classroom drool. Lifesize plastic figures of snubbed-nosed children with dun-colored, greenish, brown-dotted, faunish faces floated around me. I realized I was the only shopper in that rather eerie place where I moved about fish-like, in a glaucous aquarium. I sensed strange thoughts form in the minds of the languid ladies that escorted me from counter to counter, from rock ledge to seaweed, and the belts and the bracelets I chose seemed to fall from siren hands into transparent water. (Nabokov 108)

The suburban dreamscape through which Frederick Barthelme's characters shuffle in Moon Deluxe, his 1983 debut collection of short stories, now seems as innocent as that lost America of Nabokov's Lolita. The comparison is not altogether gratuitous: many of Barthelme's stories involve relationships between older men and young girls or much younger women. Erika Landson, the beautiful 25-year-old restaurateur of "Gila Flambe," tells the narrator that when she married the rich, middle-aged oddball Warren Pelham, she had been in love with him "since I was a kid" (99). "Feeders" offers the creepy Cecil Putnam, at once both anxious father and discarded lover: "That's my baby girl you got upstairs," the fiftyish Putnam tells her landlord (224). In "Grapette," Barthelme's standard late-thirty-something narrator spends the evening with a young lady named Carmel whose parents, Margaret and Herman, have just given her a new Peugeot for her seventeenth birthday:

When she was thirteen and I was thirty-three, we had a little romance. Margaret and Herman wrote it off as a crush, but I wasn't so sure. Carmel looked twenty then; I took her to galleries and movies, and we slept together. One of Margaret's therapist friends wondered if it was such a good idea to encourage this; I told Herman that it was wearing on me, too. (136)

Humbert Humbert's claim in Lolita that "the old link between the adult world and the child world has been completely severed nowadays by new customs and new laws" (Nabokov 124) finds ample support in the world of Barthelme's stories, though children make infrequent appearances. More often, his narrators justify the view, popular with American women, that American men are themselves just little boys. Henry Pfeister, the narrator of "Box Step," wears mismatched socks and plays repeatedly with a plastic toy dinosaur he has just purchased: at home, in the presence of his sister and of his co-worker Anne (who is also his emerging love interest), he fills the hollow toy with won ton soup and proceeds to spill it all over the table. Later. over what should be an intimate dinner, Henry presents Anne with, not a ring or a rose, but another toy dinosaur. Similarly, the voyeur-narrator of "Shopgirls," like the deviant Humbert, is childlike in his very obsessiveness, and the dreamy, hypnotic tone of the narrative owes much to Humbert's own perverse lyricism. Readers who recall the latter's clothes-shopping spree in Parkington following the death of Charlotte Haze should be able to recognize the "you" of "Shopgirls" as a literary descendant of Nabokov's nympholept:

You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent at the neck of her blouse opens slightly - she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, tan, and greatly freckled; she wears a dark-blue V-neck blouse without a collar, and her skirt is white cotton, calf length, slit up the right side to a point just beneath her thigh. Her hair, a soft blond, is pulled straight and close to the scalp, woven at the back into a single thick strand. In the fluorescent light of the display cabinet her eye shadow shines. …

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