NATURAL SELECTION By Frederick Barthelme Viking. 212 pp. $18.95
FREDERICK BARTHELME has repeatedly taken as his subject the aesthetics of the suburban male midlife crisis, and with each successive book he has ventured into the center of that territory with greater command of its echoes and winds. In his fourth novel, Natural Selection, Barthelme gives this material a dark splenetic spin, one that practically trips up the reader; it is a narrative that disturbs and engages even while it annoys. It owns a crazy kind of courage.
No one but Barthelme still seems so angrily in love with suburbia as literary material -- the barbecues, the neighbors, the local highway clover leaves -- and certainly no one but Barthelme is as bitterly funny about it. In Natural Selection he gives us a narrator and protagonist named Peter Wexler, a "facilitation" consultant who lives with his wife Lily and son Charles in a Houston sub-division called Lazy Lakes. With quick, deft strokes Barthelme can reveal the spots of rot in what otherwise might be a cozy picture. "Lily was on the railing. I was standing beside her, looking at the yard, petting the cat. That afternoon we'd found the cat eating a squirrel, from the head down."
Peter himself is in a constant tirade against the false, the arid and the ersatz, examples of which he sees paraded at the mall or sprawled gorgeously across his TV screen. "We've never had a TV life," he tells Lily, "we don't feel that way, that settled, that comfortable. I mean, I'm forty years old and what have I got to show for it? A dinky house, a dinky wife, a dinky kid. When my parents were forty they had six hundred acres in West Texas, two houses and a bay home, four children, and a hundred friends -- it was just like TV. At least that's what it looked like to me. I'll never get there."
To which his wife can only reply, "Dinky?"
Peter Wexler envies -- or thinks he envies -- those with "some high profile disease"; he covets the clarity of emergency; he wants "to break on through to the other side" of O.K." He wants "troubles instead of just confusion," and the reader of this somewhat static narrative half fears, half hopes and greatly suspects, that Peter Wexler will get what he wants. When he is not directing his galling and galled invective against various cultural trends, he turns it on women: "She was just some fleshy swine glutton sack of gland meat barely able to struggle out of her own slop long enough to buy her favorite Grotesque & Lurid four-by-four tunic at WalMart." Later he says, "Usually I see the reasons not to be attracted to women pretty quick. I see flaws the way other people find things to hope for, things to dream about at night . . . I see faults in eyeliner, clinging hunks of mascara, errant lipstick, badly chosen colors, stinky hair, splotched skin . . ." There's more. IN FACT, Natural Selection often seems less story than mood. If there's a plot, it mostly involves the back and forth of the Wexler marriage, Peter's moving out to a rental house, his brief motel fling with a woman named Dorothy, his reunion with Lily. "I began to think that marriage itself was a challenge to all Western thought from the time of Christ to the present moment," says Peter. The airless, stationary quality of the life of the disenfranchised, suburban provincial threatens to bring about a similar quality in the novel. Which is not to say that charm and wit and sharp, breathtaking sentences are not in abundance here. Barthelme can write like a whip. "We're so disenfranchised," he has one character say, "we don't even know we're disenfranchised, we think we're in the show."
The danger is that Barthelme may have laid out a bad temper so successfully that those moments when he wants to pull back, have the narrative grow sweet -- particularly moments between father and son -- may not convince us entirely. The speeches of boredom make the rounds of the characters -- Peter, Lily, Lily's brother Ray, Ray's girlfriend Judy -- and, not without innuendo, are dubbed by Lily "the Peter disease."
It is, in fact, Lily who is the most winning character here. When her husband exclaims, "What would Jesus do in my shoes?," she almost keeps him in check with the response, "He probably wouldn't compare himself to Jesus if he were in your shoes." She is the tolerant deadpan to Peter's rail; she is the force that gives the narrative breath and conversation. And only a novel that didn't care about those things, or one that wanted to bite off its own tongue, or one that had reached a point of dithery exhaustion, would throw Lily to the dogs to prove a point.
Which brings us to the ending. It is startling -- probably both weirdly inevitable and wrong -- and cannot be discussed without revealing it unfairly. Suffice it to say that it is reminiscent in some ways of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Here, Barthelme, however, seems crueler. He is ultimately more interested in randomness as a form of cultural disinheritance than as a lesson in spiritual redemption. Finally, as yet another document about the crazy boredom of the white, affluent male, Barthelme's narrative lacks what it screamingly, hauntedly, knows it lacks: importance. And therein lies the curiosity and desperate poignancy of its self-inflicted wounds. Lorrie Moore's most recent book is the story collection "Like Life."