December 05, 1988 12:00 PM

by Frederick Barthelme

If Charlie Brown and Lucy ever decide to grow up and have mid-life crises, they’ll be able to sidle into one of Barthelme’s novels and feel perfectly at home. His very average characters do little else but engage in cryptic dialogues—with each other, with their subconscious minds and with the dialogues themselves. Barthelme’s talent lies in being able to sustain this kind of thing over a—in this case—264-page novel and keep it both pertinent and funny. Edward and Elise Lasco are an estranged couple who live somewhere in the new urban South, though just exactly where is not specified. They live apart but see each other often, and during the weekend that this book spans, they spend a lot of time trying to decide how they feel about one another. Edward says he believes that “on balance” Elise loves him, “Only it’s not the same exact love it used to be. But I don’t mean by this that it’s a lesser love.” “You mean, a different love,” Elise says. “Yeah, I guess,” Edward answers. “It’s kind of an abiding preference.” Their lives are complicated when Roscoe, Elise’s former lover and still her housemate, shows up. Elise’s militant feminist friend, Lurleen, and Edward’s sometime girlfriend, the libertine Kinta, make appearances too. Through all this, Edward keeps wishing he were alone so he could do such things as test-taste different varieties of margarine or commune with his modest possessions: “He knew the things could not protect him from harm, but there was the sense that their stability through time provided for him a defense against time, a language with which he could have a conversation with time. He was sitting there on the couch on this Saturday afternoon thinking this, and thinking how screwy it was to be thinking this. And, at the same time, thinking that this kind of thing was exactly what he liked to think.” Barthelme, like a domesticated Beckett (or an R-rated Schulz), has a way of making trivial parts add up to something profound. His characters’ ability to procrastinate and spar verbally are what they have instead of desperation. Edward and Elise are both obsessed with tidiness, in everything from their sex lives to his hyper-fastidious cleaning, and a frequently repeated phrase seems to represent a philosophy of life as well as an observation: “It’s a mess.” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $17.95)

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