Come Back, Dr. Barthelme

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Sunday, February 8, 2009


A Biography of Donald Barthelme

By Tracy Daugherty

St. Martin's. 581 pp. $35

Donald Barthelme, perhaps the most beloved of the writers who upset the apple cart of conventional fiction in the 1960s and '70s, has been treated extremely well since his death in 1989. His two major story collections and four novels are all in print, and over the last 15 years editor Kim Herzinger has rounded up his previously uncollected stories, essays and miscellaneous writings into three handsome volumes. Now comes the first biography, and not just a modest remembrance but a full-length, meticulously documented study. All dead authors should be so lucky.

Although he wrote novels and plays, Barthelme is best known for his quirky, unconventional stories. He had no interest in following the trail of the popular short story, preferring to spur that old workhorse in new directions with techniques and devices adapted from other art forms. His father was a prominent architect in Houston, and as a youth Barthelme took an interest in the modernist aesthetics of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. His father gave him a copy of Marcel Raymond's book From Baudelaire to Surrealism, which led to a lifelong interest in avant-garde art. He learned to play drums as a teenager and developed a keen interest in bebop jazz. All of these arts were exploding with experimentation and innovation while the American short story, as Barthelme couldn't help but notice, was still stuck in the Chekhov mode of the 19th century. When he began writing fiction in the late '50s, he harnessed all of these new approaches in the arts to catch fiction up with the modernist program, and then he added his own innovations.

Daugherty does a fine job explicating all this in the first third of his biography, spending as much time on these formative influences as on Barthelme's family life and teenage experiences. He doesn't neglect Barthelme's profound interest in philosophy nor the mulligan stew of early literary influences -- Kafka, Hemingway, Perelman, Beckett, Sartre -- nor the sickening diet of B-movies the writer ingested in his 20s, when he was a newspaper reporter. With all this under the reader's wings, it is easier to appreciate the absurdist, sometimes baffling stories that first brought Barthelme fame in the 1960s. In "The Indian Uprising," for example, he blended 19th-century French history with conflicts between the U.S. cavalry and Native Americans and America's involvement in Vietnam, among other things.

He was fortunate enough to be adopted by the New Yorker, which published him from 1963 onward, and by a few book publishers. (For all their critical acclaim, his books never made much money; his royalties amounted to less than $1,000 a year.)

Like a knowledgeable curator, Daugherty walks us through Barthelme's publications book by book, pausing for brilliant explications of the more challenging stories, such as "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," which comes into sharper focus after Doughtery explains its relationship to a 1931 Jean Renoir film with a similar title. He interleaves this analysis with accounts of the writer's four marriages, affairs, teaching stints and other extracurricular activities in a respectful but not hagiographic manner. (He reveals, for instance, that Barthelme had drinking problems starting at 16, was fiscally irresponsible and smoked so much he died of cancer at 58.)

I especially enjoyed Daugherty's fierce defense of Barthelme's works as socially responsible art, not as the aesthetic playthings that some critics accuse them of being. As life became more complicated in the 20th century, and as the media and corporations tried to define reality for consumers, Barthelme felt new tactics were necessary to render and to criticize this future-shocked world. Daugherty quotes from Barthelme's essay "Not-Knowing" on the writer's "need to refresh language continually, to keep it free of 'political and social contamination,' safe from co-optation by commercial interests." While the traditional short story kept its blinkered head down, Barthelme's alert fiction grappled with the upheavals of his time, functioning as verbal guerrilla attacks against the rebarbative propaganda spouted by Madison Avenue and the White House. "The disorientation in my stories is not mine," Barthelme once said. "It is what is to be perceived around us." In this sense, his mind-bending stories are often more realistic than those of his mainstream contemporaries and still feel fresh and relevant, while theirs can sound quaint.

Daugherty was Barthelme's student in the '80s. The last time Daugherty saw him, six months before he died, his former teacher gave him a new assignment: "Write a story about a genius." He did, and I'd give it an A.

-- Steven Moore is the author of books and essays on modern literature.

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