Set amidst the tatters of post-Katrina Gulf Coast Mississippi, Waveland is a brilliantly observed portrait of our times from one of the most incisive novelists at work today.
Partially retired architect Vaughn Williams does what he can to remain "viable." Battling the doldrums of midlife, he teaches an occasional class, reads the newspapers, scours the Internet, and thinks obsessively about his late father. When his ex-wife seeks refuge from her hotheaded boyfriend, Vaughn and his girlfriend, Greta, agree to let her move in, perhaps a little too cavalierly. Add in Vaughan’s annoyingly successful younger brother, who carries a torch for Vaughn’s ex-wife, and lingering suspicions about Greta’s involvement in her husband’s murder and the result is an emotionally resonant tale of mortality, love, regret, and redemption that only Barthelme could unwind.
In his first novel since PEN/Faulkner finalist Elroy Nights, Barthelme offers a strangely detached exploration of the post-Katrina Mississippi Gulf Coast. One year after the hurricane and a divorce, Vaughn Williams has more or less recovered from the shock of both. Renting a room from a younger woman who was widowed under mysterious circumstances, Vaughn slides into a low-key romance with his landlady. Their cordial yet detached friendship with Vaughn's ex-wife, Gail, is put to the test when Gail asks Vaughn and his girlfriend, Greta, to move in with her after she's assaulted by her new boyfriend. The change of scenery does little to simplify Vaughn's love life, and his strange new role stirs up his guilt surrounding the death of his father and estrangement from his brother. Oddly, though, Vaughn never seems overly concerned about the developments around him; Gail's new beau never emerges as a threat; and Greta does not seem bothered by the living arrangement. There are some beautifully written passages, but Barthelme's reluctance to break his characters' cozy familiarity makes it difficult for readers to engage with Vaughn's apparent struggles.