Richard Barnett is clearly familiar with the wide variety of characters that can be found in the American South, and fond of the cadences of their speech—so much so that these preoccupations become a burden on the stories he tries to tell.
Living in the Meantime: Three Novellas, by Richard Barnett. Available at Amazon. 225 pages, $12.60 paperback/$7.00 Kindle.
By Troy Pozirekides
When it comes to art, the term “Southern” has been stretched every which way. William Faulkner’s hallucinatory depictions of human consciousness, Flannery O’Connor’s weirdly captivating denouements and, more recently, the nihilistic ruminations of Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO series True Detective have all been been deemed “Southern.” We should be cautious, then, in categorizing any writer who happens to be from the South. But there are common qualities in Southern literature, which include an awareness of the region’s complex and contradictory history, as well as a focus on the family unit and the traditional values it supposedly upholds. In more recent work, the focus tends to be on the decay of those values in the wake of urbanization, rampant poverty, and environmental disaster.
Richard Barnett, a graduate of the Florida Writing Program and Georgia State University, has written a collection of novellas, Living in the Meantime, that concentrates on the rapidly changing South. It is seen, or rather, told—for this is a book that tries to embrace the strengths of oral storytelling—from the perspective of various exemplars of a new Southern condition. In the first novella, “Clemency,” a mixed-race alcoholic preacher “still green out of theology school” is named the new pastor of a church whose congregation still cherishes the term “Nigra.” In the next, “Just as I Am”, an FCU graduate student, who has “wised up” since her promiscuous undergrad days, weighs revenge against the men who raped her. And in the final, “Tooth and Nail,” a “narrative chorus” of no less than six voices take us through a hazy, post-New World Order hellscape where women are rounded up in blue vans for the harvesting of their reproductive materials, cities have names like “Saganville,” and a band of “Irregulars,” misfit teens mostly, wage guerilla warfare in an effort to resist the “Darwins,” “Frankies,” and the “KinderGuard.” Barnett is clearly a writer of great ambition. Regrettably, he is not a very clear writer, and his ambition frequently extends beyond his imaginative abilities. In his attempts to craft unique and nuanced voices for his characters, he fills each page with slapdash similes and digressive references to high and low culture. The result is more often cacophony rather than revelation.
Though Living in the Meantime is comprised of three novellas, it is best to think of the book as divided in two halves. The first two novellas are thematically similar because the revolve around damaged, isolated types who piece together families in the wake of personal tragedy. They are also remarkably similar in voice, tone, and cadence. This is disappointing, since both stories are written in the first-person, from the perspectives of ostensibly distinct characters. Here are two passages, one from each novella:
“She was right. I should have known better. Educated people like you and me, we go through life reacting to situations by reciting from a book or Pax TV. We want to be good just by reading a lot and listening to Paul Harvey and Dr. Laura. If that were it, reading Huckleberry Finn would have saved us a long time ago. We don’t want to sit on the bus next to people like Hoke.”
“The real trouble with cussedness, though, is it hides in the marrow of things. The martyred leader’s son turns out a cad. The lottery winner is a sorry son-of-a-bitch who steals from his mother. The war hero comes home, takes a look around at the world according to Walt Disney and Monsanto (Family Values, Free Trade, Soy-based Inks, and Better-Managed Forests) and tries to go back to hookworm and bad roads.”
Could you tell which was John Mark McCandless, the alcoholic, mixed-race preacher, “thirty-one years old and still green out of theology school,” and which was Kay Song “Kazy” Weatherspoon, the graduate student full of tough talk against her “repressive phallocentric drunkard upbringing?”
That exercise may seem unfair, but reading each of the novellas in isolation from the others invites comparison. Barnett seems to be attempting to capture the distinct cadence and rambling nature of individual yarn-spinner, but his maximalist approach ends up leaving the reader exhausted. Efforts to follow each reference, digression, and simile don’t offer sufficient reward. Within four consecutive pages of “Clemency,” for example, we have: “I wanted her like Ruth wants to go,” “Hoke needs people like John needs a bath,” “I needed a pint bottle like Peter needs a rooster,” and “there he was, like Saul, gone hunting for asses and finding himself anointed hermit-king, so to speak.” Taxing to be sure, but defensible, seeing as the main character is a man of the cloth? Then why, in “Just as I Am,” do we hear from Kazy, “If you can imagine John the Baptist locked in a small room with a mall-starved Kathie Lee…?” I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine that.
As I began the third and final novella of Barnett’s book, “Tooth and Nail,” I was encouraged. Here was the unfiltered voice of a boy who goes by the name “Youngun” and who, armed with a wrist-rocket, roams the “Debatable Lands” of a dystopian South, wreaking havoc on the powers that be. If Barnett had stuck with Youngun for the remainder of the novella, telling the story from his limited perspective, it could have been a genuinely captivating neo-Gothic tale. But each of the six chapters in “Tooth and Nail” introduces a new narrator. This is difficult feat to pull off in a novel-length work, though not impossible—Faulkner did it with great success in As I Lay Dying—but within the confines of a novella it is nearly impossible for the reader to engage deeply with a story told through so many disparate voices, especially when that story occupies an alternate reality that is left largely unexplained.
Barnett is clearly familiar with the wide variety of characters that can be found in the American South, and fond of the cadences of their speech—so much so that these preoccupations become a burden on the stories he tries to tell. And story remains king, whether a book is written in the fragmented, stream-of-consciousness style of Faulkner or in the crystalline, seemingly effortless manner of O’Connor, or any point in between. Moreover, Barnett seems to be voicing gripes at modern society, especially youth culture, that sound jarring and immediately out of place when spoken by his narrators. Take Kazy in the second novella, who reflects on her past as “one of the Kewl girls, with a Phat Mom and a closet full of Slut-Clothes.” Even if she were looking back with disdain, I can’t imagine any woman, let alone one in graduate school, would talk about herself like that. Good stories require attentiveness to the manner of their telling and respect for the nature of their characters. Just as John Mark McCandless says, “that won’t preach, but it’s true.”
Troy Pozirekides is a freelance writer and critic. He divides his time between Boston and Los Angeles, and his writerly pursuits between literary fiction and screenplays. He is also a musician, playing trumpet and guitar. Follow him on Twitter at @tpozirekides.