Painted desert: a novel
Frederick Barthelme's haunting new novel picks up where his acclaimed previous book, The Brothers, left off. Junior college professor Del Tribute and his cyber-muckraker friend Jen catch some old news footage of the L.A. riots, some of that vivid close-up slow motion shaky-cam stuff with the fires blazing and people getting trashed, and Jen, in particular, is incensed by the barbarity of the scene. At her insistence she and Del, her father, Mike, and her friend Penny decide to step out of the shadows and head to ground zero - Los Angeles - to do something, anything, about this particular horror.
Their journey takes them from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, from Alamogordo to the kitschy tourist sites of New Mexico and Arizona. Jen sets up a scourge of e-mail spamming and internet newsgroup posts about the atrocities of the riots, but then one night in Dallas she gets a strange message back from a guy in Las Vegas named Durrell Dobson, who really believes that anarchy is the only game in town. He's sympathetic about the riots, but his messages are filled with bizarre personal sex histories, terrorism threats, an evangelical froth of retribution.
As Jen and company make their way west, they discover a fondness for the goofy tourist sites and the land itself and, as Dobson continues to jack up the vengeance rhetoric via e-mail, Jen has second thoughts. Maybe she and Del aren't supposed to be great avengers, maybe just seeing the odd and spectacular world around them is more important than scratching out Evil. Maybe, but Dobson is out there and boiling. His urgent messages rip veils off his schemes, name victims, reveal strategies, and Jen feels oddly responsible for his fervor.
How Jen and Del and the others resolve their conflicted interests, and the shocking acts they may have encouraged, provides the eccentric and nuanced conclusion to this ferocious, touching novel of character, culture, and the media. In The Brothers Barthelme went for more than culture snapshots; here he pulls all stops, committing his characters to a fresh and remarkably poignant embrace of the contemporary world with all of its ordinary and beautiful flaws.
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