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There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme

Published by Little, Brown and Company on October 7, 2014

Wallace Webster has been sacked from the design firm he helped found. Divorced from his second wife who now has their house in Houston, Wallace is living in their former vacation condo in Kemah near Galveston Bay. He sleeps most of the day and is usually in a state of malaise, occasionally lapsing into severe depression. Wallace is often visited by Jilly Rudolph, his platonic friend and former employee. Jilly's ex-husband has been arrested for having sex with a minor, but he's also having sex with Wallace's ex-wife. It's a small world.

The condo development seems to be an unlucky place to live. Wallace's neighbor dies in a car crash; another condo owner is attacked and painted blue; another commits suicide. All of this Wallace describes in an amusingly laconic style, including his uncomfortable interaction with a cop who happens to live in the development.

The woman who was painted blue, Chantal White, has a dark past that frightens Wallace. Her daughter is even creepier. Wallace hangs out with Chantal but prefers the company of Jilly, who is less age-appropriate but better at kindling his dwindling interest in life. Wallace engages affably but superficially with other odd characters as the novel charts its meandering course.

The novel's strength is Wallace's first-person narration. Wallace muses about art, relationships, culture, fireworks, lawns, and pretty much everything else that pops into his mind. He's feeling old, watching life go by, a wry observer more than a participant, the kind of guy who wonders "what's next" but is in no hurry to find out. The reader, on the other hand, will spend much of the novel wondering where the story is going, if anywhere. That didn't bother me because I enjoyed the sharply defined characters and their witty dialog while taking a voyeuristic interest in the everyday drama of their lives. Much of the novel amounts to listening to gossipy people gossip. Fortunately, they are gossiping about the kind of people and events that whet the reader's imagination.

The reader also wonders (and eventually discovers) whether Wallace will take a more active role in the management of his life. Through Wallace, Frederick Barthelme explores the rush of time, how easily we let it slip by while we neglect to say or do the things we know are important. He also has some insightful things to say about relationships and aging. Not all of the unusual events that occur are explained, not all plot threads are knotted off, but that's an accurate reflection of life.

Barthelme's characters are wonderful, sharper than real people would have any right to be. Readers who are looking for plot-heavy fiction might be put off by There Must Be Some Mistake -- none of the novel's mysteries evolve as they would in a mystery novel. The ending is startling and not really an ending at all, just as we never know how or when our own lives will end. Readers who agree that "the unexpected course of a life" can be all the plot that a novel needs, at least when the story is combined with amusing characters, enriching insight, and solid prose, should find There Must Be Some Mistake to be worthy of their time.


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