The Leading Edge of the Trash Phenomenon

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 170 pp., $4.95

Comanches are invading the city. The hedges along the Blvd Mark Clark have been barbed with wire. “People are trying to understand.” This is “The Indian Uprising,” the finest story in Donald Barthelme’s new collection. There’s fruit on the table, books, and long-playing records. Sylvia, do you think this is a good life? Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts is the third and best of Barthelme’s books, and each of them has seemed unnatural; certainly none speaks. A captured Comanche is tortured. The work of Gabriel Fauré is discussed. The nameless narrator sands a hollow-core door he intends as a table. He has made such a table for each of the women he’s lived with. There’ve been five. So far. Barricades are made of window dummies, job descriptions, wine in demijohns. They are also made of blankets, pillows, cups, plates, ashtrays, flutes. The hospitals have run out of wound dusting powder. Zouaves and cabdrivers are rushed to the river.

This unit was crushed in the afternoon of a day that began with spoons and letters in hallways and under windows where men tasted the history of the heart, coneshaped muscular organ that maintains circulation of the blood.

It is impossible to overpraise such a sentence, and it is characteristic: a dizzying series of swift, smooth modulations, a harmony of discords. “With luck you will survive until matins,” Sylvia says, and then she runs down the Rue Chester Nimitz, uttering shrill cries. Or she runs down George C. Marshall Allée. Or…Miss R. is a school-teacherish type. She naturally appears for no reason. The only form of discourse she likes is the litany. Accordingly, the 7th Cavalry band plays Gabrieli, Boccherini. And…

In addition to the way he tells his stories, Barthelme habitually deals with unnatural apathy and violence—unnatural indeed, but not abnormal; so ordinary, in fact, that although we speak of killing by the countless, of lives indifferent, closed, and empty of any emotion, of cliché and stereospeech, of trademarks and hypocrisy, we speak so repetitiously, so often, so monotonously, that our discourse is purely formal (a litany). The words we hear are travelogues of gossip; they are slogans, social come-ons, ads, and local world announcements; phatic, filling our inner silence, they produce an appearance of communion, the illusion of knowledge. Counterfeit, they purchase jail.

The war is not going well. We’ve used love, wine, cigarettes, and hobbies, in our barricades, to shore against our ruin. Useless. The ghetto’s been infiltered. There’s a squabble in Skinny Wainwright Square. The narrator drinks deeply, and deeply feels the moreso of love. Sometimes the narrator is examining maps; sometimes he’s in bed, tracing scars on the back of his beloved; sometimes he’s pointing proudly to his table; sometimes he is garroting the testicles of an indian. Sometimes…

There are other names in this story: Jane, Block, Kenneth, and Miss R. Miss R., one feels, is not to be trusted. She recommends metal blinds for the windows; she arranges words in lines, in stacks. Perhaps…

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