I must admit (as unscholarly as it might sound) that when I first encountered the work of John Barth, it wasn’t his postmodern skewering of narrative form I admired, but how insatiably horny the man’s writing was. It was my junior year at college, and The Floating Opera, Barth’s first novel, seemed the perfect assignment for an uninspired English major more concerned with penile wanderlust than the joys of the gerund. However, as I went on to read more of Barth’s oft-bawdy prose, I realized that he was one of the few contemporary American authors who can dissect traditional forms of storytelling yet still end with lucid results. In Barth’s new On With the Story, a collection of 12 bedtime tales a no-longer-middle-aged couple tell each other on a gloomy tropical holiday, the author once again burns down the house of fiction, then builds, brick by brick, a rewarding near-novel of living life at the Last Resort.

An in-joke for Barth fans, the book’s subtitle is a simple “Stories.” Though many of the National Book Award-winner’s novels do in fact unfold like collections of unrelated short pieces (only one book prior to Story, Lost in the Funhouse, was officially pegged thus), Barth has never been able to stay away from a grand plan; his long haul inevitably leads to a payoff pitch. Barth’s a novel writer, plain and simple, and Story, despite its cover designation and 12-step scheme, functions as a single story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Linking the dozen tales in Story are brief vignettes detailing what could be the final hours in the life of one of the senescent Scheherazades. The couple’s hotel seems like a balmy tomb, with death lurking just outside, but maybe, just maybe, if they keep telling stories…

Barth reveals close to nothing about the doomed pair in these segments, opting instead to fill in the blanks with the tales they tell. We don’t find out until the last 50 pages what the complete story their tales comprise is really about.

In the opening story, “The End: An Introduction,” a college professor—perhaps Barth’s surrogate, perhaps the male storyteller, perhaps neither or both—has the unenviable task of introducing to a packed auditorium a visiting poet burdened with a religious fatwa (à la Salman Rushdie). Because special security measures are needed to get this speaker to the podium without incident, the protagonist, “also a writer, not of verse but of fiction,” is forced to stall—to slow down time—and lengthen his introduction, an informal digression on the breakdowns of an introduction. As reports come to him that the poet, and the danger she brings with her, is getting closer to the lecture hall, the professor gets closer to the end of his task and arrives, laughingly but morbidly, at some unexpected conclusions. Though far less ambitious than the tales to follow, “The End: An Introduction” prepares the reader for Barth’s morbid curiosity, his elliptical technique, and his fascination with the five stages of dying.

Story is strongest during its four longest (and most straightforward) tales, each a needed respite from Barth’s more experimental and far less satisfactory flourishes. Barth finds his comic stride with “Preparing for the Storm,” a prurient examination of how three neighbors living on the Chesapeake Bay handle the real and not-so-real threats of late-summer hurricanes. Each character is in a different stage of his or her life: crotchety retiree “Better-Safe-Than-Sorry” Bowman, pert, bikini-clad “Take-a-Chance” Tyler, and the middle-aged narrator, whose level of storm-preparedness is somewhere between his flanking neighbors’. When Hurricane Dashika hits at the end of the story, we learn more about the narrator and his wanton longing for the girl next door than he intended to reveal:

When I think about Take-a-Chance Tyler or watch her at work and play, as has lately become my habit, I remind myself that I wouldn’t want anything Established and Regular, if you know what I mean. I’ve had Established, I’ve had Regular, and I still carry the scars to prove it. No more E & R for this taxpayer, thank you kindly. On the other hand, though I’m getting no younger, I’m no B.S.T.S. Bowman yet, getting my jollies from a veggie-garden and tucking up in bed with my weather radio. As the saying goes, if I’m not as good as once I was, I’m still as good once as I was—or so I was last time I had a chance to check.

“‘Waves,’ by Amien Richard” is the book’s centerpiece and features another middle-aged married couple on a tropical vacation. The tale’s elegiac quality stems, however, not from a dying partner but from a family member already dead. As the couple keep busy with scuba diving, beachcombing, and (surprise) doing the nasty, Barth explores the minute details of the couple’s relationship but leaves their devastating secret off the table until the segment’s last few paragraphs. It is then that we find out why the husband is searching for the right words and the woman is searching for a reason to live.

“Stories of Our Lives” features a host of loosely connected characters, also at a tropical resort, whose lives are propelled by the proximity and coincidence of inanimate objects: a Canadian coin dropping onto the sidewalk of a college campus, a pair of pink sunglasses tumbling across the ocean floor, a page from a paperback blowing across the beach. When a woman begins to tell her husband of an affair, or a young man contemplates approaching a topless, beyond-beautiful coed, the author cuts away from the action and shows more concern for the ongoing saga of the sunglasses or the book page or the topless beach itself.

In the 11th tale, “Ever After,” Barth comes close to providing an answer to who the between-tale storytellers might be. Vacationing at a Fenwick Island, Del., beach house, the couple spend their days with few surprises, and instead do the things that make them feel the most comfortable, like shopping or eating or, you guessed it, making love. At night they take wine out to their back deck and wait for the first meteor of the Perseid Shower. One of them is dying of cancer, but there is nothing they can do except live life per usual. In “Ever After,” Barth moves past Bargaining and Depression to Acceptance. Life is a random experience, the “Ever After” couple agrees, from deadly cells to shooting stars, neither more important than the other. So they decide to make love again. And again.

Unfortunately, Barth opts for his severest experimentation in the final tale, “Countdown: Once Upon a Time,” delaying the fictional death of his storyteller (in the midst of the final bedtime tale) to bring himself into the narrative. The move is bold but would have been better suited somewhere earlier. Here, in the midst of Story’s deathward spiral, as the previous stories’ characters are summed up and figuratively offed, Barth’s interposition seems awkward; the move reeks of Kurt Vonnegut’s sudden and unnecessary entrance at the unfortunate end of another quasi-novel, Breakfast of Champions.

Barth’s books, nine novels as well as several other ventures, have always seemed to be leading up to something wonderful, some truth he wouldn’t realize until the end of his career. At 67, Barth still seems to be getting closer to the fulfillment of his muse, even if his means are growing more abstract. Perhaps that’s the reason On With the Story is refreshing, despite its inconsistency and relentless focus on mortality. Then again, maybe it’s Barth’s basic message: that part of what’s ultimately important in life’s final moments, besides love and laughter, is good solid nookie.

CP