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I recently came across the phrase "triple-dip" in a current-affairs piece. The author was speculating about the inevitability of recession: not the one whose edge we are currently skirting (the dreaded "double-dip"), but the one after that. Pessimism is the order of the day and nowhere is this more evident, perhaps surprisingly, than in the contemporary American novel, where greatness has traditionally been equated with optimism.

Recent fiction by writers like Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody and Gary Shteyngart reflects the anxiety of the times. Their novels are populated by images of an America in distress, where credit has become a form of slavery, the middle class has slid into penury and joblessness, and major cities are unable to control their streets. Grim tidings abound – even in John Barth's Tidewater.

Barth is from an older generation of storytellers (his first novel was published in 1956), whose best work draws the reader into the story even as it irreverently comments on its own fictional status. In Every Third Thought, Barth picks up where he left off in 2008's The Development, a collection of linked stories about the denizens of Heron Bay Estates, a gated retirement community in the Tidewater region around Chesapeake Bay.

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Spanning a quarter-century, the stories of The Development depict empty-nesters looking for a sense of community to fill the void left by completed careers and grown children. Houses and relationships are built up and torn down while neighbours come and go – until Oct. 29, 2006, when a tornado smashes into Heron Bay Estates and promptly undevelops it.

The not-so-coincidental timing of Barth's storm, appearing as it does on the 77th anniversary of the 1929 stock-market crash, suggests a convergence of economic and natural calamities. With their homes destroyed, the good people of HBE face the unenviable task of, as Barth puts it, "rebeginning" in the autumn of their lives.

George Newitt, the narrator of Every Third Thought (and several stories from The Development), is a retired creative-writing professor and self-proclaimed Old Fart Fictionist, one whose career never amounted to much, but who has had a pretty good life nonetheless. George lives with his wife, poet and fellow Stratford College faculty member Amanda Todd, in a cramped rental as they figure out whether to rebuild at HBE or move on.

The novel opens just as George and Amanda are about to embark on a long-planned pilgrimage to Shakespeare's birthplace. While there, George falls and hits his head. The leads to several episodes in which he experiences past memories as urgently present. Each vision occurs on roughly the first day of a new season and features a corresponding memory from that "season" of his life.

Most of the visions feature Ned Prosper, boyhood friend and, as they get older, friendly rival, a young writer who takes his vocation much more seriously than George does. Ned introduces George to books, girls and third thoughts: the joyful determination to act on those impulses that we all too often abandon in moments of self-doubt ("on second thought …"). Ned's 1954 disappearance from a Mexican beach is an enduring mystery that George never quite gets over. Inspired by his visions, George decides to remember his friend by writing the novel Ned never had the chance to finish.

While George associates third thoughts with Ned, they also point to another Prosper(o) and another tempest: Shakespeare's play. Prospero, of course, is the exiled Duke of Milan who magically conjures up a storm to revenge himself upon his usurping brother. Having restored the natural order by the end of The Tempest, Prospero plans to return to Milan to begin his own retirement, where "every third thought shall be my grave." While this sounds morbid, Prospero's line isn't necessarily grave: Reflecting on one's mortality can also take the form of a valediction to a life well lived. After all, as George realizes, "that still left First and Second Thoughts to get stuff done in."

While clear-eyed about the disasters that have befallen us, Barth's "rebeginning" restores a qualified sense of optimism to American fiction by using the occasion to reflect on the accomplishments of a fading generation whose lifespan marks America's golden age.

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Matt Kavanagh is proud to be head of a department filled with fictionists of all ages at Okanagan College.

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