Frederick Barthelme, Waveland

“Waveland was like Baghdad if the Air Force had hit it really hard: gone.” That’s the description this novel gives you of the town in Hancock County, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina. This book, written by University of Southern Mississippi writer Frederick Barthelme, looks at the human catastrophes of broken marriages against the backdrop of the natural catastrophe of a ravaged coastline.

This novel explores the meanings of modern marriage, and the reasons they are suddenly left little more than rubble. Hear this description of the protagonist’s parents:

“His mother and father had endured a long, private decline in an apartment, the two of them jammed in there like gerbils, walking upstairs and down, watching television, eating meals together silently, watching more televsion, going upstairs and downstairs for thirty years or more after retirement. His father had complained. His mother had not complained. And then they died, one after the other.”

The book’s key character, architect Vaughn Williams, autopsies his own rent-apart marriage, noting that adulterous affairs had served as “air-bags” for their marriage. He concludes they, in fact, were the plans made ahead of time for the final wreck to come.

The book also weaves in and out of the nature of religious faith for burned-over religionists. “Vaughn adored the Church, but only the lovely, forgiving Church in his head.” I found that to be true of this Coast, when I was there. It was awfully easy to construct a Christianity as an “air-bag” for whatever wreck you planned to make of your own life. And, as the years have gone by, I’ve found it to be true elsewhere as well.

Perhaps the most intriguing theme explored in this small novel is the move away from success and toward smallness, toward meaning. The architect protagonist discovers that seeing his name in architectural magazines, being a “successful” architect just won’t bring him lasting satisfaction. He goes into what he calls a kind of “death spiral” until he final resolves to live “the small life,” la petit vie.

The Spirit used these final pages of the book to remind me something of the biblical mandate to contentment in whatever place to which Providence has driven one. He pointed me to the kind of “death spiral” our Lord Jesus asks us not just to endure but to seek, death to self, to “success,” as we take up our crosses and follow. I finished this book earlier this year with a prayer to seek la petit vie, and the kingdom of God too.

That’s a paradox, I know. But Jesus sure seems to love paradoxes.

Photograph courtesy of worldcat.org.