A fiftyish graphic designer forced into retirement discovers, via a parade of unlikely events, that it may still be a lovely day in the neighborhood.
Wallace Webster lives alone in Kemah, Texas at Forgetful Bay, a condo development where residents are passing away at an alarming rate. As he monitors events in the neighborhood, Wallace keeps in touch with his ex-wife, his grown daughter, a former coworker for whom he has much averted eyes, and a somewhat exotic resident with whom he commences an off-beat affair.
He sifts through the curious accidents that plague his neighbors, all the while reflecting on his past and shortening future. Required to reflect upon his own mortality, he wonders if "settling for" something less than he aspired to is a kind of cowardice, or just good sense.
Beneath the arresting repartee and the ever-present and often satisfying banality of our modern lives--from Google searches to real life mysteries on TV--lies Frederick Barthelme's affection for and curiosity about our human condition.
Barthelme's works are known for their focus on the landscape of the New South. Along with his reputation as a minimalist, together with writers Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison, Barthelme's work has also been described by terms such as "dirty realism" and "K-mart realism."He published his first short story in The New Yorker,and has claimed that a rotisserie chicken helped him understand that he needed to write about ordinary people.He has moved away from the postmodern stylings of his older brother, Donald Barthelme, though his brother's influence can be seen in his earliest works, Rangoon and War and War. Barthelme was thirty-three year editor and visionary of Mississippi Review, known for recognizing and publishing once new talents such as Larry Brown, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Amy Hempel early in their careers.
There are two dominant architectural genres in America: the tacky ad hoc industrial/commercial sprawl available on every federal highway in every town from Brownsville to Appalachicola; and the private designer communities tucked in between - like Destin, Florida and Kemah, Texas - which are equally tacky but considerably more expensive, given that they are planned to be an escape from the first. Both genres are vacuous and depressing, physical representations of a lack of any real purpose among their inhabitants. At least that’s what Barthelme conveys to me in this drama of quiet middle-class desperation.
People seem to drift haplessly in There Must Be Some Mistake . The entire cast drifts into various strange relationships for reasons that are unclear. They drift into or out of jobs and house purchases with no rationale other than it feels right at the time. Their aesthetic sensibilities seem to be a permanent state of suspension lest they recognise the general ugliness of the world they inhabit. They, like the architecture they inhabit, are also vacuous. They are, therefore, moved, influenced, and motivated by the slightest random stimulus to do self-destructive things.
This is “junk culture.” It consists of elements so tawdry that they have a demanding aesthetic presence. I suppose they seem to require a kind of Hobson’s choice: either to develop a sort of immunity to their garish, overwhelming repulsiveness; or to force an entirely new standard of beauty, as if there were no other societies than the one which tolerates such violence to the idea of beauty. Wallace Webster, the once aspiring architect turned ad man, has made his choice; he has learned to love it: “I thought I’d get tired of the tacky crap, the minigolf and souvenirs and franchise restaurants, but I never did.”
Bathelme writes here about the Gulf Coast but it’s clear he intends all of America: “Everywhere along the coast, from south Texas to Louisiana, there was this worn-out feel, some godforsakenness that drifted through the air like sad Latin music.” What’s there is a history of destruction and wealth turning into destruction. Things are bad but no one wants them any different. They don’t even want to escape; that would be un-American. Wallace lives on Forgetful Bay, a non-place of condos among other non-places that litter the entire Gulf coast, with other non-people who have similarly decided that this is the best to be expected from life.
There is a certain level of nostalgia about an imagined past of quaint seaside towns and the quasi-frontier life in the old industrial areas. But the memories of such things are thin and have no motive force. The murky past anticipates an equally murky future. Life at its best is a sequence of brand-name purchases. The brands are what have survived in a deteriorating world. They are the only things which provide comfort and stability, a sense of cultural continuity. No wonder Wallace is constantly thinking about returning to the God of his boyhood Catholicism - the most enduring brand name available.
This has been such an interesting reading experience. Wallace Webster began as a man I really didn't know whether I cared about. Did I want to continue to read about his life in retirement, the sometimes strange variety of people who lived in his condo complex in Kemah Texas, the various females in his life--ex-wife, daughter, deceased wife, neighbor-femme-fatale, and others? But then something happened...Wallace grew on me and Barthelme's style won me over completely. He is a sneaky writer. He lets his characters talk their way into your mind...and they do talk, a lot...as you or I would do, sometimes. They gossip and worry and think out loud and ponder meanings. And sometimes do silly or stupid things. And they worry about the present and the future.
Wallace does worry about his future and who will be in it. Meanwhile, residents of his condo complex seem to be dying unusual deaths. There is no earth-shattering activity here but multiple everyday instances of people being people, acting, reacting, interacting, hoping for a bright day to come. Barthelme uses the language of everyday to suck the reader in and he doesn't let go until the very last word.
This is my first experience of Barthelme's work but unlikely to be the last.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
People often discuss Frederick Barthelme’s work in terms of the setting—the tawdry shopping malls, amusement parks and theme restaurants of the South and Southwest. It’s true that he is the maestro of the tacky milieu. But it’s a mistake to take this only as realistic fiction about not-quite-urban, middle class people going about their (empty, meaningless, yes we get it) lives. Here he is more overt about his project: the question of how we make art out of culture’s flotsam and jetsam (hey, his characters live near water).
It’s an old modernist project, in a way, since Duchamp put a toilet as an objet d’art in the Louvre. How do you make sense of so much dreck? We have so much of it. How can we even think, with so many crappy shows to watch on TV, so many iPad pages to flip? In THERE MUST BE SOME MISTAKE, the protagonist, Wallace, is an old conceptual artist turned ad man, now laid off and free to watch the pollution-tinged sunsets. His lover’s daughter makes found art from gruesome newspaper articles. And their condo association, Forgetful Bay, is basically in the process of writing its own story—tabloid fodder or literary novel depending on your point-of-view: A surprising number of people are suddenly dropping dead. Heart attack, sure, but also the stray suicide and suspected murder. A lady policeman wanders around, taking statements, which as far as our hero is concerned is also a kind of performance art. At least he thinks he’s seen the whole routine on CSI. Wallace also has a virtual harem of women: a still-friendly ex-wife, a live-in chum, and an outside lady with a mysterious past. Except Wallace is barely having sex with any of ‘em. Sex is not the point. As with everything else, real life is never as clear as art would have you believe.
Flaubert once said that he couldn’t look at a beautiful woman without imagining her skeleton. Early Barthelme stories like “Shopgirls” contrasted the images of beauty and happiness fed to us by the media to real life’s stubborn and glaring imperfections. With this novel, though, there’s a softening, a warmth: Real life turns out to be more tender, forgiving, and layered than what our ideals lead us to expect. Wallace even feels generosity towards, sympathy with, his ex-wife’s current lover, in prison for sex with a minor. I guess you’d have to call it Mature Barthelme.
A profound novel that is also a great deal of fun. P.s., no one writes snappy dialogue like this dude. “Philadelphia Story” worthy banter.
I have to confess I like to know what I’m reading. Perhaps it’s the control freak in me needing to know where I’m going. Is it a mystery / thriller? Should I be prepared for some twists and turns? Or is it ‘literature’ so I can expect to be entertained with sensible sentences and a thought-provoking plot.
Which is a long-winded way of saying this predisposition is why I struggled with much of this novel.
That's not to say I didn't eventually enjoy the book, rather that... it really went nowhere in particular and offered me little. In fact it's reminiscent of Paulo Coelho's Adultery - a book I read recently which touches on loneliness, depression and a mid life crisis of sorts.
The characters were complex but not necessarily well-developed. They were all quirky and I struggled to find them believable. Plus most annoyed the crap out of me.
If we're meant to take the novel on more than face value then I guess it's a study of a microcosm of society through the incestuous and eccentric community of Kemah.
Howling. I am silently howling at this book. I keep wanting to toss around words like “existential” and “Kafkaesque” and scream “Where’s Iggy?” from Confederacy of Dunces. Barthelme puts you right in the middle of a situation and stews and turns and dips and skews. And along the way he scares the shit out of you from his character’s condo in Forgetful Bay near Galveston.
He reminded me of why we need the Justin Miller rule in much of life. His main character. Wallace Webster, watches the same Scandinavian crime dramas I do. Hell, he even goes to Target for yet another iPhone 5 cover. (Perdition catch my soul.) I do not go through the automated car wash nine times for a bit of peace as he does, although the idea is appealing.
One of his paramours has a daughter who shows us how art reflects reality. She reads snippets of TV dialogue while nude in front of a video camera as part of an art installation.
I should stop and say a series of events happen. But HELL! We all have had nail salon tycoons die mysteriously in our neighborhood. And the nude young artist’s mother Chantal, sometimes lover of Wallace, who is also living in an Airstream which is attached penthouse style (not the magazine but the architecture) to her restaurant, is found bound with picture hanging wire, painted Yves Klein blue (“which everyone recognizes, at least everyone who ever took a modern art class”). Is this relationship worth saving?
There is also a heavy presence of a HOA. Woo. Ho!
Webster is modern man on the way to an absence.
It’s been awhile since Barthelme and I were on the same page. I need to buy this man a beer. And it ain’t no skanky chocolate infused craft beer.
I really liked this book but am giving it 3 stars even though I probably should give it 4. I'm just not sure how to rate it, so maybe it's 3.5.
Right from the start it feels like a what am going to do with the rest of my life kind of story, but the book seems to be more about the people around him, the quirky people and odd and ominous occurrences in the condo development where he lives, than about Wallace Webster himself. Wallace, in his fifties has lost his job and even that happened before the book begins. The story is about his relationships with his daughter, his ex-wife, a friend from his former working life who is much younger than he is and with whom he is probably in love and the odd woman from his development that he has an affair with.
I really liked Wallace, in spite of the fact that I thought he was a bit naive at times, but I was always interested in what was happening in his life and the events that occur in his development. Wallace’s life was funny and sad and then finally hopeful , as it seems Wallace has figured things out .
I really don't know what else to say about the ending except reiterate the title. All I could think at the end was - you have got to be kidding me - "there must be some mistake". I'll have to look at other books by the author since I liked the writing style and I'll think about my rating and review for a while
Wallace Webster is just another average, down-to-earth guy based in Kemah, Texas. He lives in a suburb that includes Forgetful Bay Condominiums, which can metaphorically be labeled as 'America' in the eyes of many. A democracy that is not really a democracy is made up of a Homeowner's society; an interesting array of people trying to make themselves known as the President, but always failing to meet the people's needs.
Throughout the book, we see Wallace interacting with his ex-wife, teenage daughter, an older friend that could pass as a lover, and a newer friend that becomes a lover and a host of random people within the community. People seem to mysteriously die within the small community, but I feel the author shows the fact that we all die, mostly by natural circumstance and the cause is generally coincidence rather than supernatural interference. Wallace's melancholic ways are similar to many of us that have reflected upon our shortcomings as we age, yet we push on to live our lives the best way we can.
Barthelme, in a comical, yet realistic context, shows what it's like to be alive in the ironical, yet supreme being which is the land of the free, home of the brave.
Barthelme is without question one of the most gifted writers in America. The language game, as the kids say, is "on point." It's hard to imagine that anyone could shoehorn in or pickaxe out a single word without the entire structure tumbling into a ravine.
And of all of his later novels, this one is the most inventive and surprising. It's him, obviously, throughout, a language banquet, a fierce focus on the mundane and beautiful.
But the ending is extraordinary, revved up, impossible to forecast, stunning in its arrival. There are moments of breathtaking surprise that will stay with me.
Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.
Wallace Webster is a 50-something retiree (although not of his own choosing), a former architect and graphic artist living in Kemah, Texas, in a condo development called Forgetful Bay. Living alone after his divorce, Wallace's quirky college-aged daughter visits periodically, and he also has a somewhat complicated relationship with Jilly, a younger former coworker. He's not quite sure how he feels about Jilly—it's more than friendship but given their age difference, he doesn't know where her interests lie, and they tend to banter quite a bit without ever really addressing the issue.
Strange things seem to be happening in Forgetful Bay. Wallace's next door neighbor dies in a car accident, and then shortly thereafter, another resident, Chantal White, gets doused with blue paint in a mysterious attack. Then a woman is found dancing in the driveway of the condo association president. As the neighborhood starts to wonder whether these events are connected, Wallace begins a strange affair with Chantal, and learns she is a far more complicated woman than he first imagined, with a checkered past.
As further incidents happen in the neighborhood, Wallace starts to reflect on his past, his relationships, and what his future holds, particularly as his ex-wife resurfaces as well. He starts to wonder whether he should try to pursue a relationship with Jilly, or if watching the relationships disintegrating around him means he shouldn't risk trying again.
"If you ask me, there are many things to love in this world, and if you don't love something, your life's probably not worth the napkin it's printed on."
Wallace also finds himself more involved in the investigation of the events occurring in his neighborhood, by virtue of a conversation he had with the disgraced former president of the condo association, and at the behest of a quirky police investigator. Is there a link between all the incidents, or are they all just a series of coincidences?
I've never read anything that Frederick Barthelme has written before, but it's easy to see why he's a well-regarded author. I liked the layered complexity he gave his characters, and felt that much of the dialogue, while a little too clever at times, was fun to read. My main criticism of There Must Be Some Mistake was that I didn't know what this book wanted to be—a meditation on a life lived and what's left to live, a quirky not-quite-murder mystery, or simply an introspective character study. The chapters were fairly brief and didn't quite flow one into another; they were more like vignettes of Wallace's life and what was going on around him.
This was an interesting, quirky read, kind of a lighter version of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy. I just wish Barthelme gave us a little more weight and introspection, and a little less quirk.
This novel grew on me. The narrator came across like a person I've also known, but heretofore never suspected of having an inner life, in part because you get the impression that at times he doesn't suspect he has one himself.
Most murder mysteries are like cartoon hands: the only way to make the art look "natural" is to amputate a finger. (e.g. The joke is that people in Miss Marple's village are murdered at an alarming rate. Now that I am friends with an octogenarian crowd, it strikes me that rather too few of her acquaintances meet a shocking end. People she has known for years should be disappearing once or twice per chapter of things like hip fractures and unexpected skin lesions. )
This book is what I imagine a village mystery would look like with the hand left intact.
In that respect, the book is similar in theme, though not at all similar in tone or style, to "Welcome to Nightvale." There is a comfort level with the inherent discomfiting moments of life; or rather, there it is not a comfort level at all, maybe even some cowardice, but the recognition of the discomfort is somehow comforting to the reader. And it is all done with a sense of humor, which always helps.
This was a quick, quirky read but I'm questioning the quality.
Barthelme is an older gentleman, as is the main character, Wallace. I think there was too much of the author portraying a life HE would like (and perhaps he does, I don't know.) Lots and lots of women yet he has his space for sleeping all day and roaming about at night without much to do except surf the net on his preferred Mac. Near the end is the worse proposal (of marriage? of moving in together? Just hanging out?) I've ever heard.
True to life, not much is explained.
I don't understand the cover, and I had a hard time figuring out what a "condo" meant. To me, it's similar to an apartment, but here I think it's a townhouse or even single family home. So I had problems picturing the neighborhood and the interactions of the characters.
This book seemed to have an interesting premise (a recently retired man moves into a neighborhood where strange things are happening) but that's not really what the book was about. Very character-driven, lots of commentary on society, not much plot, at all. If you're about pitiful characters and thinking about society's plights, you may want to read it. It just wasn't my thing.
I know it's not polite to give away spoilers in reviews here, but I thought the ending of Frederick Barthelme's "There Must Be Some Mistake," is a perfect, brilliant metaphor for life's journey and our attempts to corral and understand the travails of such a journey.
Wallace Webster is a 50-plus, former artist/designer who is now a pensioner, living in a Texas Gulf coast condo. Odd deaths, both natural and suspect, occur in the subdivision and Webster and his friends ponder it all. Like most reviewers here note, not much really happens in this book. Webster weaves his way through his days, contemplating events with others on a very surface-level way. And then he moves on to his next mundane venture. I mean, at one point, Webster goes through a car wash a handful of times and then naps in his car for a few hours after thinking. Another time, he drives through his subdivision looking for statutes and yard ornaments at neighbors' homes just to do so.
There is a tad of mystery, a hint of romance, a murmur of angst and conflict. And this is where Barthleme does amazing work. He is described as a 'minimalist" writer, scratching out info in short, sparse prose. I consider Cormac McCarthy as the epitome of minimalist. Barthleme is downright chatty by comparison. To me, this book was like the starter's guide to reading John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom series, only less dark and less foreboding reflection.
So, people die. Webster thinks about it, talks to members of the Home Owners Association and a quirky police detective, but nothing is resolved. Webster also has a brief fling with an odd woman who, we learn, fatally shot her abusive husband in the past and has had acquaintances with some of the folk who died in Webster's neighborhood. Is she a killer? Is it coincidence?
That's the point of this novel. As George Harrison sang, "What is life?" Barthleme attempts to dissect it and explain that life is not explainable. Life does not follow the formatted structure of so many novels. Readers of fiction are accustomed to a life patter of: Conflict-failed attempt no. 1- second attempt- resolution- happy ending all within 300 or so pages. Instead, life is not controlled. And herein plays the ending of Mistake.
GIANT SPOILER ALERT TURN BACK AVOID IF YOU HATE SPOILERS RETURN AFTER READING THE BOOK
Toward the end, the reader is offered some hits of resolution. Maybe the girlfriend, Chantel, is killing people in the neighborhood. Webster also realizes that maybe his platonic friendship with Jilly is something more and he makes a move to further their relationship by suggesting they move to Florida. His ex-wife decides not to move back to Texas with him, solving one conflict. So things are looking bright, just as life is supposed to be. But there's always that annoying buzz in the background, the soundtrack to things not being all well. In Webster's case it is the buzz of an airplane with engine trouble bearing down on his home.
Even the last sentence of Barthleme's book is ambiguous. What happened? Such is life.
Usually books like this, with a vague suburban mystery connecting the characters together, end up being delightful character studies. In this case, most of the characters are indistinguishable from each other because they all have the same phony dialogue. I'm not sure the author has ever heard another human being speak. None of the characters are interesting or developed enough to care about them and neither is the main "strange things are happening here" idea that's supposed to thread their lives together. It's like this guy set up a game of the Sims, let them run wild, and wrote a book about it. The narrator himself was also just not someone I could relate to or care for or be interested by. There were enough casually prejudiced micro aggressions in there to turn my nose up as well. Each character, mostly the women, is described far too many times, to the point where I felt like I was reading an account of someone's experience on Hot or Not. I ended up skimming through large chunks of pretentious prose at the end just so I could finish this thing and get my books I'm actually excited for that are on hold at the library.
Maybe this just isn't for me, maybe this guy had a done deal with his agent and that's how he got this published but in any case, I'm good.
Thank you to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for this free copy. In an exchange for this copy I am giving an honest review.
Huh. Perhaps I missed the point of Barthelme's story? I finished the book and was left wondering what the point was. It was a very mundane story with rather mundane characters. There was nothing very compelling about any of it. I kept reading because I kept thinking something was going to happen to really shake up the story and perhaps the characters but nothing really did. Even the end of the book felt rather anti-climatic. I'm not sure I felt connected or intrigued enough by the characters to care what actually happened to them. In short, the story features Wallace who has just been let go from his job of 30 or so years. He's kind of floating, unsure what to do with his future and who is in it. He lives in a condo community where several strange and unsettling events happen to many of the residents in a short amount of time. So that's the short of the story. I kept thinking maybe it was a mystery that was going to present itself or that something was going to happen but nothing ever did, not really. Nothing really ever happened of interest, what was the point?!
This is a book I won on goodreads firstreads. A strange book. Things happen in this condo in Texas, several deaths and unusual happenings, but it is all handled the way any neighbors might stand around and talk about things. It almost seems like things are not happening when they are happening. This is definitely literary fiction. Events flow out. If a reader needs action scenes, it won't happen in this book. It took me almost 20 days to read because I'd put it down for several days at a time. Yet, when I got near the end, I kept going until I was finished. It seemed to get more interesting, the main character now seemed to have something to live for. Yet, the ending was unexpected. I won't give it away but, when the protagonist finally knew what he wanted, it looked like something out of the blue would destroy it all.
A little hard to know how I felt about this book. I liked it and I didn't. Very descriptive. It just took me almost to the end of the book to finally wrap myself around it.
My first experience of Barthelme’s writing – and a good one. Not a lot happens in the novel - except for a series of deaths which all impact in some small way on the protagonist Wallace Webster, recently retired after being made redundant and now living alone in a housing complex in Galveston, Texas. These deaths amongst his fellow residents don’t bother Wallace a great deal, however – in fact nothing much seems to bother him. He seems eternally disassociated from everyone around him. But he’s a good person at heart; he has friends, a lover (or two), a daughter, an ex-wife. And they all get on together. So what makes this book so appealing? It’s the dialogue on the one hand – I found it witty and wry and very amusing. And it’s Wallace’s narration on the other, self-deprecating and honest. This is a gentle book, in spite of the deaths, one which avoids confrontation and aggression and I enjoyed it very much.
barthelme always writes as if it was the union of concerned scientists monthly newsletter. so how the fuck does he make his novels so affecting?! this set in the bogs south of houston, north of galveston, in a condo. so the epitome of stupid usa nowheresville AND in the path of flooding, winds, cancer hot spots, oil spills, and affluence. asks the question: how should (can?) a person be with the ennui, sad family history (death divorce etc), good friends and family, shopping at target, art of modern usa and still either A. not become a terrorist/mass murderer or B. not become a suicide. hard to say whether the question ever gets answered though. as they sell up and buy a condo in florida. happy ever after, yo.
One of the worst books I've ever read, bad on many levels. Misled by glowing reviews, and intrigued by the droll title, I asked our library to buy this book and am so heartily sorry. Authenticity appears to have been sacrificed for quirkiness, resulting in incomprehensible characters (many of whom seem to talk alike), a vaguely sinister premise that goes nowhere, and phrases that cancel themselves out. Someone makes a face that is "oddly blank"; food is execrable "in the best sense". The title says it all.
I received this as a first read. This was an interesting novel. It is definitely funny. I also really enjoy the concept of man who retired early and finds something weird is going on in his new neighborhood. I do really like the writers style. However it took me a while to actually get in his style. I enjoy this book . Yet, I think though if I read more of this author I might enjoy the other books more.
This book just fell flat for me. It felt like an attempt at the blue collar real life prose of Kent Haruf but the characters were flat, the dialogue was robotic, and the plot was weirdly disjointed. I didn't finish the book and I skipped through a good portion of the parts I did read. I just couldn't enjoy it.
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I have been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, with more in the on deck circle, so was in need of a palate cleanser. This little book was perfect. I totally get the appeal of rundown touristy places along forgotten coast lines, and so does this author. The story took some strange twists and turns, and I loved every one of them.
A wry, funny look at 21st-century suburban American life. The prose is accessible and the dialogue is sharp. I was never a fan of Donald Barthelme, but I'll have to read more of Frederick. The ending sure did get dark, though.
A scatterbrained story with a bunch of screwball characters living in the “Condo from Hell”. The Real Housewives of Forgetful Bay is how it is described - that says it all - a constant sleep around. Not as amusing as it sounds but an easy quick read with a great finale!