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Released March 23, 2004

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG -- A 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 Year" list.

Still, by Barthelme's own admission, his is not a not a household name. But with his latest novel, Elroy Nights, that might change.

Elroy Nights, 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.

"I'm stunned 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.

Although he's 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 future.

"We're 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 our hearts.

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.

Ultimately, 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.

"Art is 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."

Although critic 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.

"I'm more 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.

"Bob 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.

Writing less 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.

"The work 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 life."

The author 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 and journals.

For more information about the Southern Miss Center for Writers, call (601) 266-5600.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM