THE KING

By Donald Barthelme

Edward Burlingame/Harper & Row

158 pp. $16.95

"IT'S THE mind, you know," concludes a love-besotted character in The King, Donald Barthelme's delightful, minimalist version of the Camelot legend. "Enchants perfectly ordinary things like breasts and makes them seem rare and wonderful."

Well, of course, there's a bit more to love than that. Still, the enchantment of the ordinary is a pretty good description of Donald Barthelme's art. Before his death last year (cancer, age 58), Barthelme dazzled readers with his verbal wizardry in more than a hundred stories, as well as three novels. "Margins," "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning," "See the Moon?," "Great Days," "The Emerald" -- in all these he made language itself his real subject. By highlighting meaning-free social chat and fashionable catchphrases, he showed up their emptiness and yet invested the patter with an odd poetry. In his prime Barthelme could replicate every kind of hip jargon, from teen slang to New Age newspeak, from yuppie cliches to the latest financial lingo. Not for nothing was he sometimes compared to Andy Warhol. As for all those classic elements of fiction -- plot, action, character development, chronology? Who needs them, said Barthelme. Everything must go. If asked, like Hamlet, "What do you read, my lord?," Barthelme knew that the answer was always "Words, words, words."

To give the language a loose frame, Barthelme's work typically relies on pastiche, parody and collage. The juxtaposition of the unlikely with the unexpected also charges the writing with a Dadaist humor and an undercurrent of satire: Guilty pleasures. In his first novel, for instance, Barthelme imagined Snow White as a nymphomaniac. He would regularly take figurative language and treat it literally. "They called for more structure then," he says about one story, "so we brought in some big hairy four-by-fours from the back shed and nailed them into place with railroad spikes." His sentences frequently explode like those of humorist S.J. Perelman, but they leave behind a sadness and yearning that might give Samuel Beckett pause. "I have here a clipping datelined Moscow, four young people apprehended strangling a swan. That's boredom."

It is heartening to say that this, apparently Barthelme's last book, is an absolute charmer, funny, sexy and serene. Barthelme has sometimes been called dull and repetitive (e.g. The Dead Father, otherwise his masterpiece and the perfect fable of post-modern belatedness). But every page sparkles in The King. Even the book's illustrator, the ubiquitous Barry Moser, displays Barthelmian wit in making his final wood engraving -- of Launcelot's sword and a picnic hamper under an apple tree -- an entirely appropriate homage to Robert Lawson's shady cork tree in The Story of Ferdinand.

The shtick that gives The King its particular spin is this: Barthelme imagines that King Arthur and his court have survived intact up to the Second World War. Queen Guinevere regularly listens to the rumors and ravings of Lord Haw-Haw and Ezra Pound on the radio. Arthur has to deal with railway strikes. The evil Mordred has "distinguished himself thus far by his skill in speculation, currency manipulation." The Black Knight is an African, of immense erudition and charm, the Red Knight a Marxist. At one point Launcelot interrupts a joust to buy some cookies from a Girl Guide. The king gets nailed for jury duty. The Grail has been transformed into the atomic bomb.

Much of The King can be read as a play of voices. In his late style Barthelme tended to minimize narrative, and rely almost entirely on spoken dialogue. Listen to the yes-man Sir Kay as he tries to account for Guinevere's rumored affair with Launcelot. "Perhaps it's a sort of pietistic relationship. Launcelot and the queen. Perhaps they read improving works together, go to early mass together, make novenas, things of that nature." Arthur replies, with his usual winning manliness, "Guinevere has no more religion than a cat." There are bon mots throughout: "True dragons are Danish and speak Danish, a tongue the Danes themselves describe as less a language than a throat disease." In the modern world, says Arthur, "Lobsters are the only thing most people kill with their own hands."

Unlike most versions of the Arthurian legend (see T.H. White and Thomas Berger, among others), The King does not end unhappily, even though the reign of heroes is fading into the century of the common man: Arthur refuses the ultimate power, Mordred is defeated, love triumphs. Where once Barthelme went in for a hard-edged Pop Art style, prose that moved as though it were on speed, this last book meanders, takes its own very sweet time. It is the master's last fairy tale, and he rounds it off with a sleep full of sweet dreams and peace and quiet breathing.

"Now {Guinevere} enters {Launcelot's} dream in her own person, wearing a gown wrought of gold bezants over white samite and carrying a bottle of fine wine, Pinot Grigio by the look of it!"

"What a matchless dream!"

"Under an apple tree . . ."

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.