Where Three Roads Meetby John Barth
This playful and jazzy triad about fateful threesomes provides an engagingly postmodern commentary on the art of storytelling, classic mythology, and literature. The first novella explores a callow undergraduate’s initiation into the mysteries of sex, death, and the Heroic Cycle. The wandering hero of the next tale finds an all-too-familiar road made new by some… See more details below
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This playful and jazzy triad about fateful threesomes provides an engagingly postmodern commentary on the art of storytelling, classic mythology, and literature. The first novella explores a callow undergraduate’s initiation into the mysteries of sex, death, and the Heroic Cycle. The wandering hero of the next tale finds an all-too-familiar road made new by some provocative traveling companions. And the three sisters of the third piece recall their youthful days of muselike services to (and scandalous servicing of) a mysteriously vanished famous novelist. These three sexy novellas prove once again that Barth is "one of the best we have when it comes to getting to the heart of the story" (Rocky Mountain News).
"Employs all of his familiar devices...to tease and titillate, while at the same time articulate -- obliquely, sadly, angrily, gloriously." Publishers Weekly, Starred
"The master of experimental fiction...cleverly exposes the artifice not only behind this book but behind the tales we make up for ourselves every day." Details
"[Where Three Roads Meet] will stretch your mind, challenge your thoughts, and bend your reality." Charlotte Observer
"Dazzling...a welcome reawakening to the possibilities of the art of narrative." Bookpage
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
If and when he ever gets his narrative shit together, Will Chase might tell the
Story of the Three Freds more or less like this—freely changing names,
roles, settings, and any other elements large or small as his by-then-more-
seasoned muse sees fit, neither to protect the innocent nor to shield the
blamable, but simply to make the tale more tellworthy:
1. THE CALL
Mid-spring mid-morning in mid-twentieth-century USA— in the mid-Atlantic-
coast state of Maryland, to be exact, and even in mid-sentence, as our then
young and recently interrupted narrator made to resume his anecdote-in-
progress by saying to his apartment-mates, "As I was saying, guys"— their
telephone rang again.
"Your turn," his friend Al said to their friend Winnie: a standing
joke between that latter pair (although both were in fact seated, on their hand-
me-down couch in their grad-student apartment in the university's high-rise
Briarwood Residences, just off campus), inasmuch as in those days before
phone-answering machines, Winnie, Al's girlfriend, took all their calls, for
reasons presently to be explained, and thus had taken the previously
interruptive one (wrong number) a few minutes before. With a roll of her eyes
she reached again for the phone—one of those black rotary-dial jobs,
standard issue back then—on the hand-me-down end table next to which she
customarily sat, when reading or chatting, for just that purpose.
"If this were a story and you were its narrator," Alfred Baumann
advised Wilfred Chase while Winifred Starkattended the caller, "you could
stop the action right here and get some capital-E Exposition done: like who
the Three Freds are and what they're doing here; what the capital-C Conflict
is; what's At Stake for whichever of us is the Protagonist, and why Win takes
all our calls in Briarwood Three-oh- four . . ."
Roger wilco, old buddy, as even callow nonveterans like
themselves sometimes said in those postwar days: military radio-
communications lingo for Got your message and will comply. Post–World
War Two is the when of this story, although the nation's brief peaceful respite
after V-J Day 1945 would end in 1950 with North Korea's invasion of South
and the American-run UN "police action" to contain that invasion.
Excuse Narrator if you knew all that, Reader: It matters because
this story's where is the campus environs of a major university—a campus
swarming, as were all such in the USA back then, with veterans of that
previous war, their educations subsidized by the GI Bill of Rights. At all-male
institutions such as this was in those days, the undergraduate student body
was thus divided into somewhat older, more life-experienced, and now draft-
exempt World War Two vets, many of them married, and younger, greener,
soon-to- be-draft-vulnerable hands like the then Will Chase and his only
slightly older best friend and mentor, Al Baumann.
Greener, yes, in that neither Al nor Will had shared their war-
veteran classmates' transformative experience of military service, not to
mention actual combat. But green comes in shades, and in every other
respect Al was so much the savvier that as of this telling Narrator still shakes
his head at that pair's friendship, wondering what on earth Al B. found
interesting in Will C.; what he got from a connection so clearly beneficial to
his protégé. Born and raised in one of the city's most desirable
neighborhoods as the only child of well-to-do parents, his dad a professor of
oncology at the university's medical school, Alfred Baumann had been
educated K–12 (as they say nowadays but did not then) at private day
schools whose graduates routinely matriculated in the Ivy League. At puberty
he discovered in himself a passion for the arts and for academic scholarship;
decided by his junior prep-school year that he'd be a poet, a professor of
literature or maybe of art history, and on the side a jazz pianist, although he
knew his way around classical guitar and string bass as well. Enrolled in the
comparably prestigious but decidedly less classy VVLU instead of Harvard/
Yale/Princeton, because it offered an experimental program wherein selected
students could on their adviser's recommendation become virtual Ph.D.
candidates early in their undergraduate careers, commence supervised
original re- search in their chosen disciplines, and complete their doctorates
as early as five years after matriculation. Al was, moreover, no stranger to the
capitals of Europe and elsewhere, the Baumanns having often vacationed
abroad before and after the war as well as having gone with Doctor Dad to
oncological conferences in sundry foreign venues—whence their son had
acquired what to friend Will, at least, was an enviable familiarity with places
and languages, wines and cuisines, and the ways of the world, including self-
confidence with the opposite sex: a sophistication the more impressive
because worn lightly, even self-deprecatingly.
"Trivia," Al liked to say about such casually imparted but
attentively received life lessons as that slope-shouldered red-wine bottles
contain Burgundies and round-shouldered ones Bordeaux, the former to be
enjoyed promptly and the latter "laid down" some years to mature; that both
kinds need to "breathe" awhile after opening before being drunk (except for
Châteauneuf-du-Pape); that provolone has four syllables, not three; that
making circles with one's thumbs and forefingers is a handy reminder that
one's bread plate on a restaurant table is the one at one's left hand
(small "b") and one's drinking glass the one at one's right (small "d"): "It's
what's here, here, and here that matters," indicating in turn his or Will's (or
Winnie's) head, heart, and crotch. But from whom if not gentle (slope-
shouldered, indeed Chianti-bottle-shaped) Al Baumann did Will learn how to
tie a full-Windsor necktie knot, navigate the city's bus and trolley lines,
successfully hail a cruising taxicab and compute the driver's tip, play
sambas and rhumbas and kazatskies and frailichs as the occasion warranted
in addition to their new jazz trio's usual repertory? Not to mention what one
learned from him in the classroom, as one's junior instructor in Literature &
Philosophy I & II, about Homer and Virgil (and Sappho and Petronius and
Catullus), Plato and Aristotle (and the Gnostics and the Kabbalists), Dante
and Chaucer and Boccaccio (and Scheherazade and Somadeva, Poggio and
Aretino and Rabelais), and other classics on (and off) one's
freshman/sophomore syllabus, up to and including James Joyce's Ulysses
(and Finnegans Wake) . . .
"And trivia, class, as you may have heard, comes from Latin
trivium: literally, a place where three roads intersect —as in Sophocles?—but
by extension any public square where people swap idle gossip." The Trivium
was also (he went on) the medieval division of the seven liberal arts into
Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric—not to be confused with Cambridge
University's tripos, which was a different story altogether: "Okay?"
If you say so, Teach. And so indeed Al said, back then back
there, in class and out—all which curricular and extracurricular input Will
Chase eagerly "downloaded," as one might put it three decades later, his own
background having been a different story indeed from Alfred Baumann's:
Depression-era child of minimally schooled though by no means unintelligent
small-town storekeepers in the state's least affluent county; graduate of a
wartime local public school system so strapped for funds and faculty that its
eleventh grade was perforce one's senior year, whence nearly none of the
seventeen-year-old diplomates "went off" to college— especially if they'd
been lucky enough to escape military service and thus unlucky enough to
have no GI Bill to subsidize a higher education that, as a group, they weren't
competitive for admission to anyhow. A few of the girls managed nursing
school, secretarial school, or the nearby teachers college; most became
store clerks, telephone operators, beauticians, or/and young housewives and
mothers. Most of the boys found jobs in local offices and retail stores or
became tradesmen, farmers, or crab-and-oyster watermen like their dads
before them. A few enlisted in the peacetime military.
And a handful shrug-shoulderedly took the application exam one
spring afternoon for "senatorial" scholarships (whereof every Annapolis
legislator was allotted a few to award and then to renew or redistribute
annually) to various colleges and universities in the Old Line State. Having so
done, the applicants proceeded to their summer employment fully expecting
that at season's end it would become their real employment: their life's work.
Which, however, in Will Chase's case and that of a few others in
his (all-white) graduating class, it did not. Since junior high school—or "upper
elementary," as sixth and seventh grades were called in that abbreviated
system— the lad had made an avid, if noisy, hobby of jazz percussion, and
with comparably amateur-but-dedicated classmates on piano, trombone, and
alto saxophone had formed a combo to play weekend dances at the local
yacht and country club. In the spring of their "senior" year—thanks to the sax-
man's father's business connection with a club member who had further
connections up and down Maryland's Eastern Shore, they auditioned for and
by golly won the best summer job any of them could imagine: At a fading old
steamboat-era resort on the upper Chesapeake, still visited in season by
daily excursion boats from Baltimore, the quartet would play two hours of
dance music in the waterfront dance hall every afternoon while the boat was
in and three hours more every evening for vacationers-in-residence, in return
for a modest salary and free lodging in a storeroom-turned-bunkhouse at the
end of the club's pier. Better yet, on Saturdays the oddly instrumented
foursome was to expand to a small orchestra: three saxes (their alto plus two
tenors or maybe even a baritone, if they could find one), three brass (the
trombonist-leader plus two trumpets, if they could be found), and three
rhythm (pianist and drummer plus a bassist, if et cetera). Swing-band-type
lighted music stands; uniforms (broad-shouldered lapelless jackets and
slightly pegged pants were "hep" just then, also black knit neckties and black-
plastic- framed eyeglasses, whether one needed them or not); upgraded
(secondhand) Zildjian cymbals and Slingerland drums! Instead of the combo's
one-volume fake-book of the melody lines and chord progressions of all the
standards, and their improvised "head arrangements" of whatever was current
or recent on the Hit Parade, they would have a veritable library of store-
bought stock arrangements with separately printed parts for every
instrument—plus any "specials"
that might be scored by whoever in the group had sufficient
interest and ability in the orchestration way.
Which Whoever turned out, if mainly by default, to be Will Chase.
Although he'd had no musical training beyond the half-dozen years of piano
lessons that most youngsters took in those days, he had learned from them
some basics of theory and harmony as well as how to read music, and from
his combo-comrades something of the ranges and peculiarities of their
instruments. All hands were, moreover, rapt listeners to the exciting new
progressive-jazz recordings of Stan Kenton, arranged by Pete Rugolo; to Billy
Strayhorn's sophisticated arrangements for Duke Ellington; and to Sy Oliver's
for Tommy Dorsey. And so while his buddies expanded and numbered the
library, acquired the dressy music stands and the group's first-ever sound
system (as primitive by later, rock-era standards as a manual typewriter in
the age of desktop computers), and scrambled for the weekend supplement
of sidemen and for manageable rehearsal times and venues, Will set about
earnestly trying his hand not at composition, for which he knew himself to
have no gift, but at transforming by reorchestration some existing, preferably
familiar melody into something new, an attention- getting showcase for the
band. So enamored of and engrossed in this novel activity of arranging did he
become in the spring of that year, and even more so when the expanded
orchestra was actually recruited, rehearsed, and swinging on summer
Saturday nights at the Bohemia Beach Club, that he dared to imagine—as
he never would have about his at best- adequate instrumental ability—that
here might be his vocation: his true calling.
"But it wasn't, quite," Narrator hears the tutelary spirit of Al
Baumann interrupt this extended interruption-of-an-interruption to
declare, "and so when the Bohemia gig runs its course in late August and our
webfoot Wilfred wonders what to do with himself next, he takes his bass
player's advice and the scholarship he claims to've forgotten he'd applied for,
and he climbs out of his down-county tidemarshes like a wide-eyed, wet-
behind-the-ears amphibian and crosses the Bay to join me at VVLU—and
there they-all sit at the present time of this so-called story, interrupted by
that second phone call, but you've been nattering on so about the Hicksville
school system et cet that you haven't even gotten yet to the Three Freds'
ménage à deux et un peu, and Lou Levy's Cheatery, and why Winnie used to
take all our phone calls at Briarwood Three-oh-four. Your Tutelary Spirit
suggests you save all this Arranger stuff for a memoir somewhere down the
road and get on with our made-up story: Win can't keep Levy on hold forever."
Roger wilco, old buddy—after establishing (a) that this six-hours-a-
day, six-days-a-week band gig (Mondays off) taught Will Chase unequivocally
that his orchestration, like his percussion, was after all no more than a better-
than-average amateur flair, not a pre-professional talent; also (b) that the
search for those additional Saturday-night sidemen turned up a few college
types from Baltimore who commuted to the job by excursion boat and stayed
overnight in the club storeroom with the combo—among them the pianist-
turned-bassist Alfred Baumann from what we're calling Veritas Vos Liberabit
University, that being its motto, and his Goucher College girlfriend Winifred
Stark, a Library Science major and Music minor (commuting downtown to her
keyboard lessons at the Peabody Institute) every bit as able on piano as was
her versatile boyfriend, or for that matter the group's regular ivory-tickler, who
therefore happily took weekends off, as the other sidemen could not.
And (c), as has been intimated, that it was Will Chase's fortuitous
acquaintance with said bassist (the first he'd ever worked with, and what a
difference in the band's beat, and how much one learned from him on the job,
about everything from leaving the basic four-to-the-bar mainly to him and
using one's bass drum more for accents, to pushing one's already-thinning
hair into a fifties-style pompadour!) that persuaded him, not to abandon
music, but to set aside career ambitions in that line and give college a try
instead, at least for his scholarship year. He remains much obliged to this
hour, long-gone Al-pal, for that suggestion.
"Well: My suggestion, as you call it, was that after that shall-we-
say Bohemian summer, Will Chase would be a fucking idiot to go back to his
dear damp Marshville instead of giving big-city academia a try. That he had a
better shot at quote Finding Himself, whoever that might be, in a VVLU
seminar room across the Bay than in his folks' ma-and-pa drugstore.
Besides which, Win and I needed a drummer for the new club-style trio that
we had in mind but hadn't named yet, and given our three first names, the
choice was a no-brainer, as they say nowadays but didn't back then. So
introduce us to the Reader already, okay? Something more than that résumé
stuff a few pages ago?"
Narrator's pleasure, if Will Chase ever finds his voice.
Meet Al Baumann, Reader: twenty-one years old at the time here
told of, but already deep into Otto Rank's 1909 treatise Der Mythus von der
Geburt des Helden; also Lord Raglan's magisterial synthesis The Hero
(1936), and his own interdisciplinary doctoral dissertation on the Ur-Myth's
ubiquity in the literature of Western civilization—
"Not just Western, man! And not just the guy's birth, either: I was
into the whole Heroic Cycle shtick already by the time Campbell's Hero with
a Thousand Faces came out in 'forty-nine."
That you were—as one appreciates now but could scarcely then.
If things had gone differently, it'd be Alfred Baumann instead of Joseph
Campbell whom we'd be watching public-television documentaries about.
"So it goes."
So it went, alas, as shall be revealed if Narrator ever gets his act
together. Meanwhile, meet Al Baumann, Reader: a gentle and wispy-haired
but nonetheless commanding presence, lightly brown-goateed a dozen-plus
years before the high sixties brought male face hair back into style, and
figured not unlike the instrument he played so authoritatively at Will Chase's
side on the bandstand of the Bohemia Beach Club and, subsequently, in
what passed for a student hangout at super-serious VVLU—a hangout
denominated, by that bass-shaped bassist himself, the Trivium . . .
"Because all three curricular roads there met, Reader: the
colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and what's now called
Professional Studies but used to be Business and Education."
Plus all three campus castes: undergrads, grad students, and the
odd junior instructor or assistant prof.
"Plus our dates, unless we were already-married war vets: the
belles of Goucher and dear nearby CONDOM—"
Their sacrilegious acronym, Reader, for the all-female College of
Notre Dame of Maryland: doubly titillating to horny VVLUers inasmuch as
contraception in that precinct was an even bigger no-no than premarital sex.
"As for one's bearded, bass-shaped bassist-buddy: Granted, I was
no skinny-assed redneck like some bandmates I could mention. Ate too
much dreck, drank too much National Bohemian, smoked too many of the
free cigarettes handed out in our student union by tobacco companies
looking to get us hooked, and didn't exercise half enough, despite Doctor
Dad's tongue-tsking. But 'twas chiefly a product of inherited metabolism—
and anyhow none of the above is known to cause leukemia, which takes care
of your why-no- PBS-documentaries question. On to Winnie?"
With pained pleasure, while that so-able and magnanimous rosy-
cheeked lass remains freeze-framed back in academic 1948–49, telephone in
hand, awaiting the end of this interrupted interruption of Section One, "The
Call," of Part One, Tell Me, of our novella-triad Where Three Roads Meet . . .
"Your novella-triad, man. I just keep the beat."
Nope: Al and Will together kept the beat, with a little help from
Winnie Stark's left hand, while her right both carried our tune and developed
and resolved it. Win is the without-whom-not of this Three Freds combo.
"Of their combo, maybe; but their story's your baby, excuse the
expression. On with it?"
Only children both; pals and playmates since early childhood;
their parents near neighbors in upscale-but-laidback Roland Park, not far from
the campuses of their kids' respective day schools and subsequent
colleges . . .
"Not that we didn't consider Harvard or Princeton and Radcliffe or
Smith after finishing Gilman and Bryn Mawr, mind—just as we'd now and
then considered other one-andonlies besides each other. But as has been
mentioned, only VVLU was offering that fast-track Ph.D. . . ."
And Goucher was the best nondenominational women's college in
the same town, and the girl- and boyfriend competition never measured up to
what you K–12 sweethearts— K–sixth form?—had become for each other
over the years.
Copyright © 2005 by John Barth. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin
Meet the Author
JOHN BARTH’s fiction has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. For many years he taught in the writing seminars at John Hopkins University. He is the author of such seminal works as The Sot-Weed Factor, Chimera (for which he won the NBA), and Giles Goat-Boy.
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