Spy Review: John Barth’s “A Novel in Five Seasons” by David Bruce Smith


Among believers in numerology, “7” is equated with harmony, but for Professor George Irving Newett of Maryland’s Stratford College, that digit is aligned to bad luck and uncomfortable visions.

John Barth’s hero, previously introduced in 2008’s “The Development”, now reappears in Every Third Thought: a Novel in Five Seasons.

On the 77th anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, Newett’s lush-with-career-academics-community of Heron Bay Estates, is partially pummeled by a tornado. Because of it, he and his wife, poet and fellow faculty member, Amanda Todd, are forced to relocate to a rented condominium.

Despite the devastation, the couple proceeds with their plan to cruise Europe. Then, on Newett’s 77th birthday in September of 2007, the professor takes a fall–in the Fall–at the Shakespeare-imbued home in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is followed by five consecutive visions; each occurs on the first day of the season, and corresponds to a previous Newettian Rite-of-Passage: a cycle of seven “events.”

The narrator, for example, recalls his 1952 travels along the East Coast with his beloved childhood friend, Ned Prospero, and their girlfriends. The young Marsha Green becomes his first wife, but Newett’s relationship with Prospero holds more potency, intricate love, and lifelong interest:
…God damn you anyhow, Ned Prosper,” lost asshole buddy that George Irving Newett loved almost to the point of bifuckingsexuality! There, he’s goddamn said it—or rather, you’ve said it, in this goddamn Third Thought…Why’d you up and die on me old buddy, and who gives a shit half a century later except, well, obviously, still-desperately-scribbling G. I. Newett…”

The “loss” of Prospero is compensated for by a high arc of acclaim and adoration among the students at “StratColl”, and a near-perfect marriage. Amanda Todd, twelve years his junior, is Newett’s absolute lover, confidante and editor. Their partnership neutralizes his fifty year disappointment of not having composed The Great American Novel. Life also swipes at his Ambition in the guises of writers’ block, lack of inspiration, and rejection; only sporadically published articles in obscure journals somewhat satiate his lust for literary lionization.
Every Third Thought nudges a spectrum of reminiscences, framed around the uncomfortable “7” metaphor. Besides family, marriage, politics, and career, it also reaches into a couple’s grief. The Newett/Todd’s are childless because George is sterile; each is also an only child of deceased mothers and fathers. Death, thus, for them, is more extraordinary. With no relatives and few friends living or nearby, the destiny of the surviving spouse becomes an unknown, and when neither is alive, a legacy of any kind will be in doubt.

Barth applies language humorously, descriptively, imaginatively, and articulately, but not even artfully selected words can feather up a restless emotional history.

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