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When to hold 'em and when to fold 'em
The characters in Hush Hush, the latest story collection from Steven Barthelme, are drawn directly from life, with a precision that leaves sentences ringing in the reader’s ear. They seem to inhabit some infinitesimal space between the past and the present, and yet they are never trapped, always willing to move forward and try again in spite of the flaws that define them.
“Claire” is the most sympathetic story and perhaps the most richly imagined; it won a Pushcart Prize in 2005 and acts as a centerpiece for the book, which alternates between highly resonant pieces of flash fiction and more substantial, intimate narratives. Bailey Long is down a thousand dollars to his ex-girlfriend, who has moved on to a younger man—“breeding stock,” as Bailey sees it—and must decide when to quit as he goes on a roll with the loan money at a Biloxi casino. And so it goes with a lot of Barthelme’s characters, many of them gamblers of one sort or another, all of whom are willing to take the big risks in matters of the heart.
Risk is a familiar theme in Barthelme’s writing, most notably explored in the memoir Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, which he co-authored with his brother Frederick. Both brothers work at the University of Southern Mississippi, where Steven is a professor and director of the Center for Writers. But in Hush Hush his fiction cuts more sharply at the truth. The stories are a brilliant mixture of high-flying antics and tender reflection, his prose terse and his dialogue alive with recognition. Like in the unusually patterned “Good Parts” where the narrator tells us, “Bill bought a gun, .38 caliber. It smelled good. Maureen returned it and got his money back. $199.95.” What Bill planned to do with that gun, or what Maureen thought Bill planned to do with that gun, is left to the reader’s imagination, but also intimated by the rest of the story. Because like a good poker face, it’s what Barthelme doesn’t say that makes it all the more compelling.