A rye look at suicide

A rye look at suicide

Jefferson Chase looks at John Barth's The Floating Opera and a day in the life of a would-be suicide case

Whisky & Culture | 25 Sep 2003 | Issue 33 | By Jefferson Chase

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Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1930, John Barth is one of contemporary American fiction’s most influential, if not most well-known writers, a forerunner of postmodern novelists like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. And what, you might well want to ask, is postmodernism?To quote Barth himself, it’s “tying your necktie while simultaneously explaining the step-by-step procedure of necktie tying and chatting about the history of male neckwear.” Such self-reflection makes it a natural fit for the most reflective of all alcoholic beverages.Case in point Barth’s first novel, The Floating Opera, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 1956. The Floating Opera begins with the protagonist and narrator introducing himself and his favourite drink: Todd Andrews then…I’m 54 years old (does this surprise you?); I’m six feet tall but weigh only 145. I look like what I think Gregory Peck, the movie actor, will look like when he’s 54, except that I keep my hair cut short enough not to have to comb it, and I don’t shave every day…I’m interested in any number of things, and enthusiastic about nothing. I wear rather expensive clothing. I smoke Robert Burns cigars. My drink is Sherbrook rye and ginger ale. I read often and unsystematically—that is I have my own system but it’s unorthodox. I am in no hurry. In short, I live my life…in much the same manner as I am writing this first chapter of The Floating Opera.I’ve never sampled Sherbrook rye, with or without an admixture of Schweppes, but one presumes it’s pretty drinkable. The protagonist, in any case, drinks a quart of it every morning.While recounting the life of Todd Andrews, The Floating Opera is about a specific day in the life of Todd Andrews. A day on which the usually laconic protagonist makes a momentous decision:I woke up that morning, slugged my rye, looked around the room, got quietly out of bed, and dressed for the office. I’m sure I splashed cold water on my face, rinsed my mouth out, wiped my reading glasses with toilet paper, rubbed my chin to persuade myself that I didn’t need shaving. It was, if I’m not altogether mistaken, at some moment during the performance of this ritual—the instant when the cold water hit my face seems a probable one—that all things in heaven and earth quite suddenly came clear to me, and I realised that this day I would make my last.The rest of the novel recounts the 24 hours during which Andrews, in true cynic’s fashion, decided not to kill himself after all.Along the way, we learn what originally inspired the strange idea. Andrews is not alone on that fateful morning.Another’s presence interrupts his custom of leaving a medicinal rye for an elderly fellow resident of the hotel where he lives:Jane Mack opened her marvellous green eyes and sat up in my bed: her hair, brown and sleek as a sable’s, fell around her shoulders, and the bed sheet slid down to her hips; she raised her right arm to push her hair back; the movement flattened her stomach and lifted one of her breasts in a way that flexed my thighs to watch. I drank Capt. Osbourne’s medicine myself, as was not my practice, poured him another dose and tiptoed out.The woman in question is of course Andrew’s lover—and his best friend’s wife. The Floating Opera is a novel that will appeal to even those who find Pynchon and DeLillo irritatingly mannered.Although he worked for many years as an academic, Barth writes in a picturesque, matter-of-fact style about life on the Eastern Shore, and the account of male loss of virginity from the book’s middle section is hilariously malicious.Reason enough to track down this book (and a bottle of Sherbrook) and ponder its arguments for going on living. The Floating Opera has been reissued, together with The End of the Road, by Anchor Books.
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