Book Review: There Must Be Some Mistake, by Frederick Barthelme (2014)

I first read Frederick Barthelme’s short stories in the New Yorker many years ago. I was captivated by them. He painted pictures of ordinary people in ordinary situations. Although they were fiction, they seemed to be gently commenting on middle-class society in the 1970s. It was fine with me if there were no gripping plots or twists to the storylines. I loved his writing.

I was so happy to rediscover Barthelme and this novel was a great welcome-back present. Like the protagonist, Wallace Webster, I am recently retired and still feeling my way through unstructured days, learning not to get up at the crack of dawn for work, and still adjusting to not being part of a workplace. I can relate to Wallace in that respect, except I’m not a night owl the way he is. Like him, though, moving away from my former community and retiring has meant a change in the way I socialize and learn to make new friends. Breaking into new social situations is markedly different in one’s fifties compared to one’s twenties. Happy hours, volleyball games, and loud music are replaced by dinners with other couples, midmorning coffee dates, and long walks.

Wallace’s awkward forays into a new social environment are the focus of the book. A series of strange events in his neighborhood is merely the backdrop against which this adjustment plays out. I found that I cared more deeply for the characters than finding out the causes of those unsettling events. Just as in those early short stories, these are ordinary people dealing with ordinary issues: annoying homeowners associations, nosy neighbors, aging, loss, insecurity.

The reader is either privy to Wallace’s first-person thoughts as he navigates both old and new relationships and tries to make them all mesh together, or we are treated to delightful dialogue among the various characters that ranges from playful banter to rapid-fire interviews to sarcastic commentaries. Barthelme adds so much detail to these conversations, which include nuances in speech and mannerisms that probably were carefully captured and curated over the years.

I imagine Barthelme as a patient and careful observer and listener, going everyday to his favorite coffee shop to eavesdrop on the simplest of stories, collecting and storing them for later. It’s a nice image to have of a writer whom I admire, even if it’s not accurate. Maybe it’s what I hope for myself some day as a writer. I’m looking forward to catching up on several decades of his books.

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