July 3: “Toga Party” by John Barth

Hello, Story366! I hope your long holiday weekend continues to be a ripper, that you’ve found plenty of whatever it is you’re looking for today. Karen, I, and the boys got a late start today—I was going to watch the Cubs, then for some strange reason decided to stop doing that around the bottom of the second inning—so we had an impromptu makeshift family day (instead of a family evening). We like to take drives—Karen and I do, anyway, while the boys just tolerate them—so we were going to take a short drive on I-44 to either Ozarkland, this tacky-but-fun Ozarks gift shop to the west that also has fudge and ice cream; or, it was off to the Uranus Fudge Factory, as they have fudge, a general store, and a strip club. A bit ashamed to say, but the fact that Ozarkland is only forty-five miles away while Uranus is eighty-five was the main factor in choosing our fudge destination, the tasteless name and strip club not serious factors. To Ozarkland we headed.

Yet, like a week ago, Karen saw a sign for a BBQ restaurant in Republic, Missouri, and on our way to Ozarkland, we passed a sign for Republic, and Karen proposed a change of plan. She found the place online and read the entire menu to me as I drove, but actually had me halfway through the appetizers when she uttered the words “Hillbilly Nachos,” which are just normal nachos with pulled BBQ pork instead of chicken or beef. We circled back the twenty or so miles we’d gone, found the BBQ restaurant, and parked right in front of their front door … just eight scant minutes after they closed. Yes, it was 2:38 in the afternoon and this place closed at 2:30. Hillbilly Nachos and everything else pulled pork was going to have to wait until another day (perhaps tomorrow).

In any case, we then spent the next hour driving around the little towns surrounding Springfield, hoping to chance upon a hidden gem of a restaurant, something fun and quirky and unlike anything we’d ever had. Expectations were growing higher, children were growing impatient. What we discovered, however, was that everything in small towns (save gas station megamarts) is closed on Sunday afternoon in Missouri. We eventually found ourselves back in Springfield and found a really good Chinese restaurant, easily the best we’d eaten at since coming to Missouri. Still, a four-hour family outing on a holiday weekend and we ended up with kung pao chicken a few miles from our house. I am going to have to come up with something great for tomorrow, not only fireworks, but rebels-blew-up-the-Deathstar fireworks. I might  have to fly everyone to Disneyland  to make up for today’s debacle.

We got home and I got to read some John Barth today, a couple of stories from The Development, out from Mariner Books. I’ve been reading Barth’s stories since I was in college, since I got my copy of Lost in the Funhouse, a copy I still have and use to teach from. Barth is a noted critic and author, of course, one of the best fiction minds in America and has been for fifty years. I’ve read a lot of Barth since, but was happy to get to The Development for today’s post.

The Development is a collection of linked stories, all of which take place in this gated community named Oyster Cove in Chesapeake Bay in Eastern Maryland (Barth taught at Johns Hopkins for forever and I wonder if this is the type of place he’s settled). In the first story, “Peeping Tom,” we meet Oyster Cove’s historian—they have a historian!—Tim Manning, and it seems like Tim is going to narrate the stories in The Development. Why is this important? If you’ve read Barth, you know that he’s a writer who has played around with metafiction an awful lot, and by “played around with,” I’d call him the undeniable father of metafiction, as “Lost in the Funhouse” is the fictional bible of what metafiction can be, can do (and again, is over fifty years old). So, in The Development, we don’t have this neutral, all-telling, third-person narrator who is also the author, coming in to make notes on how the story is coming along, what he should do, what he should have done. Instead, Barth provides himself with a living, breathing character in the story, Tim Manning, who lives in Oyster Cove and serves as the ultra-involved, über-present narrator. Barth doesn’t interrupt these stories with notes on craft because he has Tim to do it for him.

I like “Peeping Tom,” but that story seems to be as much set-up for the book as story (though there is a peeping tom and a nice twist at the end). Instead, I’m doing “Toga Party,” the second story. “Toga Party” is about Dick and Susan Felton, a seventy-something retired couple in Oyster Cove. On the first page of the story, Dick finds the invite to the titular event in his mailbox, a party to be given by some new neighbors, who have built an impressive new house around the bend. Dick brings the invite into Susan and we get a lot of deconstruction of what the heck these new people mean by “toga party.” Dick and Susan seem to be educated people, pretty well off, and years beyond any behavior that could be deemed reckless. They sit in their sun room, have breakfast, and wonder what these people are expecting. Is it going to be debaucherous, like in Animal House, bedsheets and kegs and such? Or will it be a celebration of the classics, store-bought costumes and high-brow talk of wine and Cicero? They really don’t know what to wear, what to bring, what to expect. In this indecision, this conversation, we get a pretty good picture of Dick and Susan, what kind of people they are, where they’ve landed at this point in their lives. They seem a bit more like the snobby bores from Omega House, all grown up, than they do the slobbish Deltas, overthinking everything because they have the luxury of overthinking everything. Eventually, they decide this party is supposed to be fun and the decide to go and have fun, so maybe that Omega crack was a little harsh.

A couple of weeks later, the Feltons head over to the party and it seems like a mix of high and lowbrow. The house is sweet, clearly the nicest and most lavish in the neighborhood (until someone builds a bigger and better one on the empty lot next door), and the host family certainly has spared no cost. They drink expensive wines, cover themselves in the finest garments, and incite classical themes, but at the same time, play their share of bacchanalian revelry. Included are games where the men have to gobble grapes out of the women’s cleavage and the women have to drop their panties on the diving board, earning points if they stay out of the pool. So, it’s kind of like the Omegas grew up and finally embraced the Deltas’ perspective (man, I’m giving Animal House a lot of airtime here, but so does Barth, so I’m good with it).

And because this is a story about parties and people drinking and misbehaving, anything can happen, a theory that Barth embraces. I won’t reveal what happens at the party, the story’s climax, other than it’s surprising and fitting and perfect; I’ll also reveal that this climax isn’t the climax, but maybe the vice-climax, as there’s an epilogue after the party that makes a much larger impact, sees the story’s arc to its proper end.

John Barth is a legend, and as someone who has been inspired by him and his Postmodern tales since I began writing, it’s an honor to read another one of his books for Story366 and dare to have something to say about it. The Development is another feather in his cap, another setting, another group of people that Barth creates so he can let his talents, his imagination, run free. What a book, what a writer.

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