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  1. Book ImageMoney, Love: A Novel

    Brad Barkley

    "Filled to the brim with fall-down funny scenes an vividly etched, unforgettable characters." —Washington Post

The Author on Her Work

Money, Love grew (I think) out of my own obsession with the small-time edges of celebrity, a circle of enchantment wide enough to include door-to-door salesmen—celebrities in their own right. In the suburbs, in the late ‘60s, the oppressive quiet of an afternoon spent with coloring books and The Munsters would be interrupted by the low diesel rumble of the speckled Charles Chips van gliding down the street and parking in front of our house, the salesman (I assumed his name actually was Charles Chips) ringing our front doorbell, bringing speckled tin canisters of chips and pretzels, caramel popcorn, and cheese curls, then riding off again until his next mysterious visit. For years, I stood behind my mother’s skirts watching the Fuller Brush man deliver his spiel, his shoes shiny, a tiny feather in his hatband, a case full of samples. He would give my mother free bottle openers or pens with plastic bases meant to stick to the telephone. She gave him orders and money. I watched. The whole transaction always struck me (though I hadn’t the language to articulate it then) as a kind of performance, a tiny one-man show on the narrow stage of our front porch, the same show appearing on all those other stages up and down the block, a hundred performances a day.

Part of the fascination for me is understanding now that those front-porch pitches were performances, that those men (as they strictly were in those days) would take the whole abstract idea of transaction and turn it into a kind of art form, a work of theater. Those door-stoop audiences paid money not just for the brushes and cleaners and vacuums and globes but also for the visit, the shiny shoes, the ready smile, and the quick joke. As the drummers and commission-men have slowly gone the way of phonographs and hat wearing, I think we’ve lost something, squandered some of the texture of our lives. Today, that idea of transaction is embodied not by those sharp and lively performers but by the homogenization of another Wal-Mart, another generic mall manned by teenagers. I’m not sure exactly when we phased out door-to-door salesmen (there are, as with everything else, still a few stragglers); we still have people selling things, obviously, but usually it’s only a soulless transfer of “goods” to “consumers,” and that sense of transaction as game or art or calling has been lost. Maybe all of that disappeared for good during the Reagan years, when greed was good and the bottom line became the bottom line. Face it, selling potato chips door to door is not very expedient, though it is a romantic, sweet notion. But buying and selling no longer has any place for romance or sweetness. We have efficiency in its place. Who needs to sell vacuum cleaners on front porches when an infomercial and a credit card will bring the Fantom Fury to your door by overnight delivery? It may be that this very copy of this book was ordered online, without the need for any salesman at all. The whole idea has just gone the way of the milkman, or the iceman before that. We pay only for the product now; all the artistry and longing have been factored into oblivion.

Except, perhaps, at the county fair.

There, even today, we pay not just for the act of tossing a ping-pong ball into a goldfish bowl or for the chance to win a stuffed panda but also for the pitch, the con, the come-on, the rap. We pay for the carney to make us into true believers for that five minutes, to take us in. We hand him our gullibility, and he sells it back to us. During those easy suburban days of the ‘60s (all the turmoil of those times seemed like fiction, a show on TV about violence in Asia and campus unrest), I was a twice-yearly visitor to the fair, the best of which was the Dixie Classic in Winston-Salem, a town where the air carried the ambrosial smell of curing tobacco. The carnies also fit into my circle of obsession, the veneration of small-time celebrity. They seemed exotic, with their tattoos and alcohol breath and sideburns, with their effortless way of demonstrating their own games, winning every time. More artists, selling nothing more than their own easy charm.

It was during one such trip to the fair that another major strand of the novel got woven into my consciousness, though of course I didn’t know it then. I saw on display Buford Pusser’s bullet-riddled Corvette. For those who may not remember, Buford Pusser was the name of a real-life sheriff depicted in a series of redneck drive-in movies in the early ‘70s (being a redneck who frequented the drive-in, I was naturally interested). The sheriff was shot to death by local bad guys (or his wife was; the details are fuzzy), and the death car was on display. Though I admit that Buford Pusser is pretty much scraping the bottom of the celebrity barrel, the idea stayed with me and came back as I was working on the novel. I did some research and discovered that a number of celebrity death cars had at times been displayed around the country. I wondered about that, what the draw was . . . morbid curiosity? A sick kind of voyeurism? I don’t think that’s it, or else almost any death car would do, celebrity or otherwise.

Somehow we need our tragic and famous, need them not as people but as emblems, as ideas. Where I live you still see guys in their sixties who wear jeans with wide cuffs and white T-shirts with cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves. They have motorcycle boots and slicked-back hair and sideburns. And they dress this way because when they were eighteen or nineteen, James Dean and Marlon Brando dressed this way, and that style sealed the whole idea of coolness for them, so they are grounded in that way of thinking. It becomes another kind of transaction, a person made product, a container for our own nostalgia. We pay for the celebrity—not the human being—for the right to lift these people up and make them embody some idea of ourselves. Right now Marlon Brando is just some obese ex-actor living on an island, but don’t tell that to the guys with the jeans. They bought their tickets; they’ve seen The Wild One. They’ve owned that image for fifty years now, and they wear it every day. James Dean has been dust for decades, but the teenagers at the local Spencer Gifts store still purchase his pretty face emblazoned on everything from beer mugs to T-shirts to life-size cardboard cutouts. Dead or not, he’s still cool. And we still buy.

I like to think of the act of writing as one of these aesthetic transactions, the pleasing purchase of words—adding them up, hoarding them away on pages. In this case, though, the tradeoff is my own time and effort bargained away for the opportunity to spend a couple of years with characters who still, to this day, are capable of moving me, of making me laugh. What a deal I got.

Discussion Questions

  1. In the above piece, Brad Barkley comments on his early fascination with carnival carnies, referring to them as “artists,” and likewise Gabe seems more drawn to the skills and methods of his salesman father than to the pop artists who display their work downtown. What does the novel have to say about the nature of art? In what sense can salesmen and carnies be thought of as artists? Does defining something as “art” have to do solely with the medium (e.g., Gabe’s struggle with sculpture) or more with the relationship between the artist and his or her medium, no matter what it is? Another way of thinking about it: who is more the artist, Dutch when he plays guitar, or Roman when he sells cleaning products (or, for that matter, Rod McKuen when he writes poetry)?
  2. Near the end of the novel, Gabe reflects on Gladys’s new marriage, saying that she would learn that while wild, blind, crazy love will not work, neither will an ordered, systematic approach to love. Is there an example in the novel of love that does work? Do any of the characters love the right way, or love purely? How so? What defines the “right kind” of love, and how can it work between two people?
  3. As a follow-up, consider the title and the epigram from which it is taken: “Money, love . . . no money, no love.” While most people would automatically say that love cannot be bought, can love be traded? Do we use love as a kind of commodity, as a system of barter? How so? What are some examples from the novel and otherwise?
  4. One of the major themes of the novel is the evolving relationship between Gabe and Roman. At one point, Gabe even wishes for “normal” parents, from whom he could keep things hidden. Is Roman a great father or a terrible one? What makes him great or terrible? How would you think about your childhood looking back, if you had a father with traits similar to Roman’s?
  5. At one point, Sandy accuses Gabe of being the only person she knows who is worried how his past is going to turn out, and, in fact, looking backward and feeling nostalgic are constant threads through the book (consider Roman and all his leftover ‘50s clothing and manners). What does the novel have to say about the nature of nostalgia and why we feel it? How do the James Dean and Jayne Mansfield “characters” and the presence of old cars relate to that theme? Is nostalgia generally a positive emotion or a corrosive one? Is it honest? If so, why?
  6. In his essay on why he wrote the book, Barkley talks about what he sees as the “homogenization” of buying and selling, the increasingly generic quality of commerce. Do you think he’s right, or is this just another kind of nostalgia? Have we lost something in the arena of commerce in the name of increasing efficiency and profit? If so, what exactly? Is it “art,” as the author suggests, or something less lofty?
  7. Barkley grew up in North Carolina where the story is set. He has said elsewhere that his experience of the South was not the typical south of pickup trucks, shotguns, beer-drinking, and backwoods, but rather was characterized more by subdivisions, shopping centers, strip malls, and middle-class suburbia. Has this description now become more typical than the former? Is the author’s experience reflective of what many call the “New South”? If so, what does it say about the direction that the South has taken (collectively, as a region) in the last generation? Is it more homogenization? Is this progress, or is the South in some way losing its identity? Given the absence of pickup trucks and shotguns, what quality is present that would cause us to still regard Money, Love as “southern fiction”?
  8. Despite all the sadness of the characters and events, Money, Love is still touted as a comic novel. Where do the humorous elements most fully come into play in the story? How is this novel in keeping with what is understood as the “comic tradition,” in the sense that it is comic as opposed to tragic. What traditional elements of the comic are at work here?
  9. Which character did you most strongly identify with, and why? In a larger sense, what is it in characters that causes us to identify with them, since their circumstances rarely match our own? What is it in fiction that causes this kind of connection to occur?
  10. Why is Gabe the one who tells this story? Do we need him at the center of things, acting both as an anchor and as our surrogate? Why? Is he reliable as a narrator? Why do we trust him (if in fact we do) given that during the course of the novel he lies, cheats, lusts, and steals?

About Brad Barkley

Brad Barkley, a native of North Carolina, is the author of Circle View, a short-story collection. He lives in Frostburg, Maryland.

Books by Brad Barkley

  1. Book CoverMoney, Love: A Novel

    "Filled to the brim with fall-down funny scenes an vividly etched, unforgettable characters." —Washington PostMore