As promised, I’m back to report on John Barth’s newest book, The Development. The 78-year old author has turned his attention to a slice of America, by constructing and deconstructing life in an upscale gated community in the Maryland coastal region.
Barth is known as a writer of humor, but his books cover the gamut from comedy to tragedy, albeit with a certain sense of playfulness in the use of language, autobiographical insertions, stories within stories, and a conscious manner of toying with the reader. His little-known book, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor is one of my all-time favorite novels.
The Development is a collection of short stories with several common characters and the events that tie them together. Life in the development is full of mundane activities, planned social engagements, and people grappling with life issues large and small. The overall tone is remarkably restrained and one might conclude it’s rather lightweight in sections. But looks can be deceiving.
The overall feeling I get from the book is one of happy, smiling people leading lives of quiet desperation. There is great love within couples and families, but when those lives are disrupted by loss, the greater community provides little true support or solace. They are more concerned with whom is let in or let out of their world. It is clear that “aging in gated-community” is not the same as “aging in community”.
As one who works on transforming nursing homes, it fascinates me how many of the institutional features — superficial relationships, programmed generic activities and lack of true reciprocity — have been incorporated into our community living areas as well. It is not just nursing homes that need to be reformed. The frailty of this social structure is laid bare, meteorologically and metaphorically, by the destructive storm that strikes toward the end of the book.
This book is an important commentary on how we age in America. Like most of Barth’s works, it is funny, sad and challenging.
PS – Don’t forget to vote next week. Democracy is very much a “use it or lose it” deal.