Rehoboth Beach writer launches his debut novel in “Fun With Dick and James”
The really interesting thing about Sussex County author Rich Barnett’s new book, Fun With Dick and James, is that as you read it, you could almost swear it makes a sound. It’s not the golden tones of some audiobook reader from Hollywood, nor is it the delicate swoosh of fingertips across wood pulp or the plaintive crackle of a paperback cover being plied. No, it’s the ineffable sound of a wink — specifically, the author’s wink to the reader about the callow ineptitude of his risible characters. I know this because the lone character who is clearly written to rise above all this effete fecklessness is the one who has a background similar to ours.
Fun With Dick and James is Barnett’s lighthearted romp that tells the story of a coterie of old-money Sussex County denizens who might actually be somewhat useful if they hadn’t been handed practically everything they have on a silver platter. The principal character, Dick Hunter (I know what you’re thinking), is a baby-boomer writer of historical novels who lives with his companion, James, the young, chiseled, former Minor League-baseball-player-turned-fitness-trainer in Dick’s family’s “cottage” in Rehoboth. The couple is frequently visited by Dick’s ex-wife, Kissy (named for her sonorous signature air kisses), who since their divorce has become a prominent real estate agent locally renowned for her fashion sense, flair for drama and affinity for Manhattans. The three get along famously, of course, even though Kissy can sometimes be a rather presumptuous pill. But she means well.
It’s actually Dick’s sister, Jane, who is the bitter pill of the family, not only for her dyspeptic temperament and love affair with pharmaceuticals but also because she, too, doesn’t go down so easily. She vocally disapproves of her brother’s gay lifestyle and even tries to forge Dick’s last will and testament because she is convinced James is just another two-bit gold digger with abs and a tan. Fortunately, there is Dick’s longtime friend Fritz Wilmerding on hand for comic relief. The early-60s scion of a foundering French-fry empire, Fritz is basically a Francophile fruit-fly of a man who doesn’t know enough to keep his mouth shut when a beach ruffian pulls a knife on him, even though he couldn’t fight his way out of a knockoff Hermès bag from a flea market.
There is also the token straight couple, named (what else?) Ashley and Chip. As pretty as they are blond, Ashley is the dutiful but vapid housewife to Chip’s closeted and likely in-denial gay inclinations. Still, he does enjoy a good flirt with the pretty boys. And then there is Rodney “Red Snapper” Snapp, Dick’s nemesis and a society dentist who looks more like a grouper than the fish for which he is nicknamed. He does things like call the cops on Dick and James’ cocktail croquet parties and deliberately outbids him at public auctions just to frustrate Dick — though it is usually Red Snapper who winds up thwarted in the end.
The story is chock-full of institutional references to anyone familiar with the region. The largest furniture retailer, for example, is Johnny Johnson’s (can anyone guess what might have been the local inspiration for that fictional entity?). There are allusions to Senator Townsend, Henlopen Acres, Brandywine Valley, Lake Gerar and Poodle Beach. Kissy also mentions the up-and-coming real estate market in Dewey Beach and Selbyville.
Amid all this privileged pomp and circumstance, swathed in hound’s-tooth check and chintz, it is James, the blue-collar son of a Latino farmer, who comes away as the only central character with a clue. Despite his mesomorphic exterior, James is steady, contemplative and nobody’s fool. Though many of the cloistered beachcombers may mistake him for a ne’er-do-well wannabe, James is the self-made, self-actualized, autonomous hero on whom Dick relies completely and will, ultimately, run rings around all of those insipid enough to underestimate him (sure, he played baseball in the Yankees’ farm system, but who’s perfect?). He is the one who really knows the score and the one entrusted by the author to represent the reader’s sensibility.
Author of the near-hysterical The Discreet Stories of a Bourgeois Beach Town: Rehoboth Beach Stories (2012), Rich Barnett is no stranger to Sussex County or campy humor, and he has drawn upon both once again in Fun With Dick and James. On page 17, he writes: “Did you know that the term ‘daffodil’ is an old British term for a gay man? It’s pure camp perfection.”
In some ways, so is Rich Barnett.
Fun With Dick and James
By Rich Barnett
Paperback: 182 pages
Cat & Mouse Press (June 10, 2016)
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