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Book Review : An Extended Exercise in Sexual Tension

Two Against One by Frederick Barthelme (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $17.95; 223 pages)

Deserted but not divorced by his wife, Edward Lasco has apparently adjusted beautifully. Alone in the house they shared, he’s become compulsively tidy and so set in his fussy ways that he seems double his actual age. An extended passage on the assembly and use of a vacuum cleaner shows precisely how far gone he is.

Though pleased with her liberated new life as a psychiatric social worker and glad to be shed of her quondam husband, Elise capriciously pays Edward a visit on his 40th birthday, startling him just as he’s settling down for a tranquil afternoon with a mammoth box of cookies, a pint of milk, and a magazine. In the course of their desultory chat, we learn that Elise is sharing a seaside apartment with Roscoe, a young widower who had once been her lover but who is now merely her housemate. Edward, meanwhile, has been consoled by a woman named Kinta, a free spirit who not only warms his bed but sets it ablaze. Thanks to Kinta’s generosity, Edward hasn’t really missed Elise. In fact, he’s hardly noticed her absence.

Elise’s presence is another matter. The two of them have barely begun to get on each other’s nerves when Roscoe appears, ostensibly to help celebrate the birthday. He’s followed by Elise’s new friend, the abrasive Lurleen, who exhibits an unwholesome curiosity about the Lasco’s marital problems. In their attempt to make Edward’s birthday happy and memorable, Elise, Roscoe and Lurleen succeed only in rendering him miserably uncomfortable, a situation aggravated by the surprise appearance of Kinta, who has finally left her own dull husband for Elise’s even duller one, without bothering to consult Edward first.

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And that’s it--an extended exercise in sexual tension and the various permutations possible among these five people. Elise would like to establish a menage a trois that would include the bereaved Roscoe as well as Edward; Lurleen has something more complex in mind; Kinta is open to any suggestion.

Though the dialogue is often funny and the observations on the trauma of turning 40 wry, the pace is excruciatingly slow, stalled by Barthelme’s penchant for egregious description; paragraphs that seem to exist entirely for their own sake. One particularly tedious example inventories every last scrap of the debris found on the bar shore near Elise’s apartment, a tour de force only remotely related to plot and character.

A recurring leitmotif is Edward’s 2-year-old pale blue Ralph Lauren terry cloth bathrobe with the torn pocket and belt loop on the left side. “By now the pony and rider, which had been discreet to start with, had been rendered a harmless off-white--testimony to the power of Clorox, since of course, the emblem was thread, which does not readily give up its color.” This bathrobe, even more than the vacuum cleaner or the flotsam and jetsam on the beach, seems meant to symbolize the frayed, tattered but enduring nature of the marriage, a draggled but still serviceable relationship. Call it the overarching literary image and let it stand for marriage in general--not quite ready for the dustbin, but not altogether intact either.

“Two Against One” (actually, with Kinta and Lurleen, it’s four against one), takes place in an unspecified section of the Gulf Coast, a humid climate conducive to self-centered maundering. The characters indulge themselves in auto-analysis at considerable length, revealing little but their own aimlessness and the barrenness of their lives.

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We’re hardly surprised when Edward’s final apercu is that “his life was smaller than it used to be (and) that it would only get smaller,” a process we’ve watched from a distance, only sporadically diverted by his tart comments on its dissolution.


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