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Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists:
American Fiction After Postmodernism
Robert Rebein. Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001. viii + 207 pp.
The "postmodernism" in the subtitle of Robert Rebein's engaging volume on contemporary American fiction is defined by "those self-reflexive, end-of-the-line works of fantasy and fabulation most powerfully represented in the works of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, William H. Gass, and Thomas Pynchon." His first chapter argues, directly and persuasively, against the long-orthodox view that these "were the Last Writers. Anything after or beyond postmodernism was by definition impossible." Instead, Rebein suggests that the formal experimentalism of the postmodernists should be understood precisely as experiments, and that "[i]t is not the job of later writers to simply repeat these experiments but rather to take what has proven useful and put it to work." [End Page 490] The resulting fiction reprioritizes content over form, and is characterized by "the revitalization of realism, the renewed importance of the concept of place, and the expansion of our traditional ideas of authorship" to include a range of once-marginalized identities. The success of this fiction, however, has been obscured by the reductive "narrative of realism giving way to modernism giving way to postmodernism [which] continues to provide the primary lens through which contemporary American fiction is viewed in the university." Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists is designed to correct this neglect, to map and analyze textual ground few critics have yet explored.
The riskiest aspect of such an attempt to depict the present is providing adequate context and connections with the past. Rebein's key second chapter, an exploration of the work and continuing influence of Raymond Carver, goes a considerable distance toward accomplishing this goal. Debunking the myth of Carver as "an uneducated man of the masses" whose literary achievements were a fluke of raw talent, Rebein instead represents him as an academically trained craftsman deeply conscious of literary tradition. This portrayal allows him to position Carver as the writer who broke the stranglehold of postmodernism on American literature by demonstrating "how to be a serious artist without taking art as his subject matter." While valorizing Carver's revival of mimetic writing, however, Rebein, in some of his harshest passages, deplores those later authors (Amy Hempel and Frederick Barthelme are specifically identified) who have merely mimicked the surface of his work, "cynically knocking out stories that deliberately said too little." The minimalism that is Carver's most visible legacy, Rebein argues, now seems "a mere step toward better work to come."
That "better work" is presumably the subject of Rebein's remaining chapters; unfortunately, the end of the second chapter also marks the end of the unified linearity of his argument. Each subsequent chapter treats a group of authors unified by a subject, setting, or identity traditionally excluded from privileged literary expression—prison, for example, or the Native-American experience. While the structure of his book implies that Rebein sees these writers as influenced by both the formal innovations of the postmodernists and the return to realism licensed by Carver, it is only in his concluding section—an extended reading of DeLillo's Underworld—that Rebein turns his attention to the specific [End Page 491] textual engagement with these influences. The bulk of his text is descriptive rather than analytic, the focus being the content of the texts he discusses rather than their relationships to each other or to any unified vision of the current state of American fiction. The result is an impressionistic, fragmented work of criticism in which Rebein's promise of a sustained mapping becomes progressively less visible; a late, short chapter on prison novels seems particularly dissociated from anything else in the text. Still, there is much of value in these fragments, particularly for readers seeking the richest veins of fiction now being mined. A chapter on "Dirty Realism" (defined as "somewhere between the hard-boiled and the darkly...