favorite of critics throughout his career, writer Frederick Barthelme
is no stranger to literary lists. Of his 13 books of fiction, 11
have appeared on the New York Times' "Notable Books" list,
and a few have even reached its vaunted "Top 10 Books of the
Still, by Barthelme's
own admission, his is not a not a household name. But with his latest
novel, Elroy Nights, that might change.
published in October by Counterpoint Press, was recently named a
winner of one of five finalist spots for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner
award, the largest peer-judged literary contest in the United States.
Barthelme, a professor of English at The University of Southern
Mississippi, is up against some of literature's brightest luminaries
- John Updike, Tobias Wolff, ZZ Packer and Caryl Phillips.
To be announced
in April at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., the ultimate winner
of the PEN/Faulkner award - or "the first among equals"
-- will receive $15,000; the other four finalists will receive $5,000.
and very, very pleased to be in such good company," Barthelme
said recently, masking any real jitters by striking a relaxed pose
in his austere office on the third floor of the Liberal Arts Building.
Like his novels, sometimes lumped into that category of fiction
called "minimalism," Barthelme's office is stripped down
to the essentials - a computer, a desk, some favorite books and
a picture of an ex-student's beloved bird dog.
enjoyed the kind of sustained success most writers would die for,
Barthelme takes his accomplishments in stride. Nevertheless, he
can't completely hide his excitement over his latest achievement.
At 60, the
age around which many of his peers are beginning to take their final
kick toward the finish line, Barthelme shows no signs of slowing.
As the director of Southern Miss' Center for Writers, which he took
over in 1977 and helped develop into one of the top creative writing
programs in the country, Barthelme talks enthusiastically of the
redeveloping our visiting writers program to bring in more high-profile
fiction writers and poets for our students to work with," said
Barthelme, whose brother Steven, also a critically acclaimed novelist,
is a professor of English at Southern Miss. "Having nationally
known writers in is one more way to take our creative writing program
to the next level, in terms of national profile and exposure."
As for Elroy
Nights, an evocative tale of love, boredom, redemption and forgiveness
set among the windswept dunes of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it
too is poised for a higher profile. Optioned by an independent filmmaker
who shot documentaries about Southern authors Larry Brown and Harry
Crews, Elroy Nights just might make it to the big screen,
starring popular character actor Will Patton. It is the fourth novel
by Barthelme that brought Hollywood calling: Second Marriage
was optioned by 20th Century Fox; Tracer was optioned as
a first-time directing vehicle for actor Gary Sinise; and Bob
the Gambler was picked up by a well-regarded Canadian director.
Like a lot of film projects that have been optioned, however, none
have yet been made.
As with many
of Barthelme's other works, Elroy Nights uses the grit and
glitter of the "New South" -- this time the neon-pocked
landscapes of the Gulf Coast -- as a canvas for his multi-dimensional
characters, characters who step off the page - but not always into
In the case
of the novel's namesake and protagonist, Elroy, the reader follows
the middle-aged professor on a reckless quest for love, excitement
and belonging that careens through the lives of his students, an
area he once considered off-limits.
Elroy's character arc brings him back home, where his patient and
enduring wife, Claire, lets him ruminate on the wreckage of his
personal crisis from the cocoon-like safety of her beachside back
porch. There Elroy discovers one of life's truisms: "Maybe
you are better off staying home in the first place."
An artist in
several senses of the word, Barthelme set out to become a painter
early in his career. In fact, his artwork appeared in galleries
from Houston, to Seattle, to New York City, to Latin America in
the late 60s and early 70s. He also spent time as an architectural
draftsman, a creative director at a couple of Houston advertising
agencies, and a conceptual artist in New York.
But it was
a chance to learn under famed literary giant John Barth at Johns
Hopkins University, where Barthelme earned his master's in 1977,
that lured him to the written word.
the way we speak about ourselves and our times. Writers and readers
enter into a dialogue together about the way we live. Making art
allows you to try to do your best all of the time-that's a rare
opportunity," Barthelme said.
His most mature
and effortless work yet, Elroy Nights hums along with a deftness
that prompted New York Times Sunday Book Reviewer Bruce Barcott
to write, "Barthelme's writing is so good, I'd follow Elroy
to a paint-drying festival."
James Kaufman once opined that Barthelme is "not particularly
interested in plot or story, but rather in scenes," Barthelme
says that approach has changed with time.
interested in plot now than before. A story that is fully styled
and art directed is even better if it has some overarching story
holding it together.
the Gambler was the first book where I really did that. The
guy in there basically gambles everything away, and he turns out
all the better for it," Barthelme said.
often but more intensely than he used to, Barthelme dictates his
books into a tape recorder, then goes back and edits and re-edits.
The process, as it was with Elroy Nights, can take a couple of years.
is quieter and more resonant than it was when I was younger,"
he said. "Less flash, more reflection. I want to work around
a larger subject, some problem or troubled area, some kind of hurt.
And I try to weave that into the fabric of the story so the reader
experiences what it means to be moving through that particular character's
of 14 books, including Moon Deluxe, Tracer, Two
Against One, Natural Selection, The Brothers and
Painted Desert, Barthelme has also been published in The
New Yorker, GQ, Playboy, Esquire and numerous other magazines
For more information
about the Southern Miss Center for Writers, call (601) 266-5600.