Back in 2006 or so I found a copy of this book (well, the double edition with The End of the Road) at the Baltimore Book Thing and read The Floating Opera soon thereafter. I didn’t know very much about John Barth (I mean I still don’t actually) but I remember reading his introduction and how he sees his novels functioning in pairs — The Floating Opera/The End of the Road being that first combination. Anyway, I thought “huh, neat! I will read both of these books and then move on to the other pairs!” and then I never did. So I found a new copy of this book at a used book store recently and again have read The Floating Opera and I thought “Ok, I will read the pair now”. Who knows if I will!
The book as Barth himself says is a “young man’s book”. It’s definitely precocious, but not glaringly so. For the most part, the genre and plot of this book are “Tristram Shandy” but Tidewater Maryland in the first half of the 20th century. So there is a plot about a mediocre lawyer who enjoys a good affair, a good love triangle, and becoming increasingly fascinated with a fair attraction (floating opera). He fought in WWI and had a cruel and life-structuring affair when he was 17 and he didn’t die in war, and he didn’t end up killing himself in his 30s even though he thinks he really wanted to. In a lot of ways this reminds me of a lot of the Kurt Vonnegut 1980s novels (oddly my favorite) but a little less wise and a little more dour and a little less funny. Not profound but curious. The book is best when the focus is on youth. Turns out a 25 year John Barth knows more about youth than middle age.