(A version of the following review of John Barth’s new book, The Development, aired recently on Maryland Public Radio, WYPR.)
Life is precarious, and sometimes I imagine that we spend our later years paused at the edge of an eroding cliff, waiting our turn to slither into the abyss.
The cliff, on which the retirees in John Barth’s new collection of nine short stories have chosen to wait, is Heron Bay, a, “well-planned and ecologically sensitive residential development,” located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A selection of pricy housing-stock is available for the wealthier elderly of The Development, these “people in the dawn of the new millennium and in the evening of their lives,” from coach homes to villas to the posh McMansions of Spartina Pointe, whose, “obvious newness so belies the fake vintage spelling of their reeded land-spit that we mockingly sound its terminal ‘e’, Spartina Pointey, or Ye Olde Spartina Pointey….”
In the opening story, “Peeping-Tom,” this crime-free zone is titillating-ly terrified by a snooping intruder. While on security patrol, Tim Manning spies his neighbor’s wife in a state of undress and returns home, feeling sheepish but horny, to bed his own. Meanwhile, Susan and Richard, in “Toga Party,” wrap themselves in bed-sheets and trot over to the Felton’s to nibble grapes and exchange witty double-entendres in Latin. However, Richard, newly turned 75, hadn’t really wanted to go, because he had “become rather stick-in-the-muddish, not so much depressed by the prospect of their immediate old age as subdued by it, de-zested, his get up and go all but gotten up and gone…” Richard’s googled and discovered he has an average of 14 years left. At the toga party, a friend and new widower, attempts to take his own life. Susan and Richard return home, rattled once more by mortality, and choose what their recently written wills had defined as a ‘common disaster scenario,’ to avoid that, “crappy last lap.”
The narrator of “The Bard Award,” a self-proclaimed Failed Old Fart, has retired into what he terms as “old geezerdom” and addresses the reader, wondering if “you’re one of these ever scarcer Americans who still read literature for pleasure (as you must be if you’re reading this, if it ever gets published, if it ever gets written),” before playing a dangerous literary game with an attractive student which dissolves into a tangle of italics and email gibber.
As you’ve gathered, there is much for Barth to skewer here, in this candy-colored aluminum toy-town with its golf carts and stunted baby-trees, and inhabitants who seem to have abdicated from living. But Barth tips his jabs with a little kindness, knowing that whether we choose to wait in a sterile new development or in the murky jumble of an inner city, the endings of our lives, like the endings of his stories, are often doomed to be a sort of “petering out.”
Barth studied orchestration before becoming a writer, and although The Development contains his usual meta-fictional high-jinx – intrusive narrators, multiple endings, broken plots, jangled prose – his devices are applied with slightly less discordance and more melodious sympathy for our ears. His playfulness with structure and story helps to offset what could be, lets face it, a bit of a downer of a collection, and this ironic style emphasizes the tragi-comic nature of the human condition, as if the great God narrator is looking down from on high at this Maryland peninsula, which resembles not so much the sleek marketing pamphlet of a property developer as a painting by Brueghel – oh, look, there’s you! There’s me! Hosting potlucks and wearing togas, drunken and lusty, dancing at the edge of the abyss.
In “Assisted Living,” a story near the end of the collection, we return to Tim Manning, now a widower, his better-two-thirds, Marge, having died. His Marge had been “ever the more capable Manning,” therefore when she passed Tim was “literally floored, clutching his unbelievably dead mate’s body as if he too had been stroke-stricken.” He thinks to himself, “Assisted Living? Been there, done that.” There really ought to be somewhere, Barth implies, for Assisted Dying, because the really tough nut at the heart of this slim volume, at the heart of life, is that we may be standing at the edge of that abyss holding hands, and at some moment or other, fingers will slip. If we love, and are loved, it is not the going we fear, it is the being left behind.
There is a photograph of the seventy-eight-year old Barth on the book jacket. He looks like a twinkly-eyed extra from one of those honey-hued movies set in Provence. Don’t let the soft beard and beret fool you, The Development proves Barth is too sharp to ever succumb to old-fart geezerdom, and would make enjoyably barbed company on that crappy last lap.