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Book review: “The Development” by John Barth

barth - developmentGerry Frank has made an estimate of the number of beats his heart has pumped over his 68 years — 3,771,800, give or take a few thousand.

Dick Felton is 75, and his wife Sue is in her late 60s. They’ve had a good life together, but now, as Dick says, they’re facing “the crappy last lap.”

Tim Manning’s wife Marge — his “without-whom-nothing life partner” — is gone, and Tim is fed up to here with the idea of Assisted Living. He searches his keyboard and all of its buttons. “There ought to be one for Assisted Dying…,” he writes.

John Barth’s 2008 book The Development has the slim, compact appearance that you’d expect for a volume of nine short stories. But — bam! — these stories carry a wallop.

No, I don’t mean they pack O’Henry-like sudden-twist endings. Actually, in some cases, the stories don’t quite end, or don’t end at all.

The angel of The End

What I mean is that Barth — that old warhorse of storytelling and metafiction — is wrestling like Jacob with the angel of The End. I.e., the end of me, the end of you, the end of him, the end of his characters.

These interlocking stories are set in Heron Bay Estates, a mature exurban Chesapeake Bay real-estate development of several subdivisions, “populated by close to a thousand mostly white Protestant, mostly late-middle-aged, mostly middle- and upper-middle-class families, nearly all empty-nesters, many retired or semiretired…”

That makes them sound as bland as bland can be. And there are elements of Barth’s description of their lives that — for anyone struggling to make ends meet or dealing any of the multitude of problems that life throws at us — will probably seem comfortable, cushioned, self-focused and superficial.

Only acquaintances

Indeed, Barth captures the shallowness of the communal life in HBH in “Progressive Dinner,” a story that prominently features the carefully calibrated, just-the-surface-ma’am level of interchange in contemporary U.S.A. when neighbors, who are really only acquaintances, gather.

Reading it, I kept thinking of the calcified language of certain royal courts where anything important or real had to be saved for the shadows. To wit:

“Hey, Rob! Hey, Shirley! Come on in, guys!”

“And the Beckers are right behind us. Hi-ho, Debbie! Hi-ho, Peter!”

“Come in, come in. Nametags on the table there, everybody. Drinks in the kitchen, goodies in the dining room and out on the desk. Yo there, Jeff and Marsha!”

“You made your taco dip, Sandy! Hooray! And Shirley brought those jalapeno thingies that Pete can’t keep his hands off of. Come on in, Tom and Patsy!”

Hi-ho, indeed.

Final heartbeats

Yet, the shallowness of suburban life isn’t really Barth’s target. In this white-bread setting, his characters — either as couples or as individuals — are grappling alone with the dark immediate (or near-immediate) realities of their final laps. Or their final heartbeats.

They’re dealing with bodies and minds wearing down. With increasing decrepitude. With the soon-to-come loss of independence.

Each knows that he or she will die in relative short order or, what’s worse, be left behind to live on alone. For a time.

Each character first appears in these stories as part of a couple. Few of the couples live close to or have strong ties with children or other family or anyone else, for that matter. They have tennis partners, and business partners. But close friends, no.

No wonder they fear what is to come and seek for some way to be in control. Indeed, thoughts of or attempts at self-destruction pop up in four of the stories. One character finds herself Googling “suicide” on the Internet. Another, grieving over the loss of his wife to cancer, thinks a machete will free him from his misery.

Even the opening story — a light, playful account of how four couples in Old Oyster Cove, one of HBH’s subdivisions, cope with the apparent sightings of a peeping tom — ends with a mention of what came later, the deaths of two members of those couples:

Old Oyster Covers got older, faltered, died — Ethel Bailey among them, rendered leaner yet in her terminal season by metastasized cervical cancer and its vain attendant therapies; Jim Smythe too, felled by a stroke when Democrats won the White House in ’92.

“No idea where”

The title of this collection seems fairly generic; yet, Barth, I think, is playing with the word. After all, a “development” isn’t only a plot of real estate with homes, garages and streets. It’s also what develops next.

The Development is about what happens next. And much of what happens next is the worrying about it.

Debbie, long grieving over the automobile death of her college-age daughter, is caught in a conversation that seems to be veering toward the subject of everyone else’s adult children. Her husband Peter, a college dean, tries to re-direct the talk with a quip about academic snobbishness.

He sets cup and saucer on a nearby table and puts an arm about his wife’s waist, a gesture that she seems neither to welcome nor to resist. He has no idea where their lives are headed.

Neither does anyone else around the table or at the party or in the subdivisions or in Barth’s story. Neither do you or I.

A player-with-language

It is heartening ¬ — particularly for this writer in his early 60s — to see that Barth, who wrote these stories in his late 70s, is still up to his old metafictional tricks.

Which is to say that many of these stories are about stories and/or about the telling of stories and/or about the reading of stories. In one delightful piece, “The Bard Award,” it’s never quite clear who the narrator is until the final line — and, really, who can be sure even then? The same is true in a much more somber story, “The End.”

But what about the Barth who hides behind all these narrators and story-telling about story-telling?

As evidenced by these stories, Barth, now 82, seems preoccupied, like his characters, with the approach of The End and subject, to some extent, to the same bleak anxieties. But he’s different from those characters. Most of them are no longer working. They’re puttering. They’re putzing around.

In contrast, Barth is still working. All his life, he has been playing with language. He’s been a professional player-with-language. For whatever reason, he feels the need or desire or joy to create. To play with language. To write.

Ben and Barth

Ben Scheinkopf (left) and John Barth
Ben Scheinkopf (left) and John Barth

In this, he reminds me of Ben Scheinkopf, my 93-year-old barber who survived two and a half years at Auschwitz. Five days a week, he comes to his barber shop and cuts the hair of enough customers to cover the cost of rent and utilities. He says his doctor tells him to keep working as long as he can, but I know Ben loves his job, loves being with people.

Barth, I suspect, loves his job, and must, in some way, love his readers.

Or maybe it’s not about feelings or about existential questions. Maybe, like Ben cutting hair, he writes because that’s what he does.

The final story in The Development ends with its narrator ruminating about Heron Bay Estates as “one small tree-leaf in the historical forest.” And it’s an image that could be applied to each of the characters in Barth’s story. And to Barth himself. And to you. And to me.

…..[N]ow and then, one such leaf may happen against all odds to be noticed, picked up, and at least for some while preserved — between the leaves of a book, say — and may with luck outlast its picker-upper as the book may outlast its author and even its serial possessors,….

Each of us is a leaf. The final development will be our fall from the tree.

Patrick T. Reardon


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