John Barth surely ranks among the least screen-adaptable modern (or, perhaps, postmodern) American novelists. His stories are about themselves; the words, their own subject. It's not surprising that only one of his books has made it to the big screen. In fact, what's surprising is that any of them did. On the other hand, Michael Winterbottom managed to turn the least-adaptable novel of all time, Laurence Sterne's “Tristram Shandy,” into the terrific 2005 “Cock and Bull Story,” so I suppose nothing's impossible.
Which brings me to “End of the Road” — never available on American video of any sort, but finally coming out on DVD this week.
Before his first full-on masterpiece, the 800-page “The Sot-weed Factor” (published in 1960, when Barth was only 30), the author wrote two other novels that were more accessible, more conventional, and, most of all, shorter than what was to follow. “The End of the Road” — some editions drop the “The” — is the story of Jacob Horner, who, fresh out of grad school, has an identity crisis — a really major-league identity crisis. He goes to a train station and — lacking the motivation for any particular action — just stands there unmoving for hour after hour. He is finally approached by a looney doctor, who — specializing in exactly such afflictions — hauls him off to his asylum, the Remobilization Farm. After some “treatment,” Horner is functional enough to take a teaching job, which sets the scene for some grim emotional melodrama.