When, within a year’s time, both Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme succumbed in their fifties to cancer (Carver in August of 1988; Barthelme that next July), it was as if the reigning president and vice-president of the American Short Story had suddenly died. Both were beloved by peers and acolytes, though they struggled for readers, and each, in separate decades, had revitalized a genre that since the invention of television has been continually pronounced both moribund and in a condition of renaissance (recovering from moribund).
Both writers were inimitable even as they were widely imitated. Carver, younger, less productive, a practitioner of a spare gritty realism often called minimalism, was the junior executive. Donald Barthelme—sparkling fabulist and idiosyncratic reinventor of the genre, practitioner of swift verbal collages, also sometimes dubbed minimalism—was commander in chief. Barthelme’s particular brilliance was so original, so sui generis, despite its tutelage at the feet of pages by Joyce, Beckett, and Stein, that even his own brothers Frederick and Steven, also fiction writers of intelligence and style, wrote more like Carver.
Carver and Barthelme were hard-drinking westerners, men’s men, and alcohol and cigarettes eased their isolation (regional and existential) in a literary life amid East Coast institutions, bohemian or otherwise, though in the end both died prematurely as a result. The cultural sea changes of their adult decades were enormous and one is reminded of all the Prohibition-era addictions that were aquired by jazz agers in the 1920s, young people navigating similar renegotiations of social mores. Perhaps artists of any time tend to possess introverted dispositions that need bracing and enlivening to exude even the cool, feigned indifference preferred in Barthelme’s later 1950s jazz age. “Edward worried about his drinking,” Barthelme wrote in the early story “Edward and Pia.” “Would there be enough gin? Enough ice?”
There is no indication in Tracy Daugherty’s thorough new biography of Barthelme, Hiding Man, that these two late great masters of the short story ever actually met, though Daugherty’s title could be used to caption the life of either of them, as it might be the appropriate title for any number of literary biographies, since presumably a writer has lived his life more on the page than off, and in such a distorted, imaginary, and playful fashion that he or she steps away from his desk and walks out into that other world half-formed, half-spent, half there—those particular fractions being optimistic.
Donald Barthelme was born in 1931, the namesake and eldest son of Donald Barthelme Senior, a Houston architect of distinction and renown and of formidability to his children, all of whom were gifted and successful and desired to please him. Steven and Frederick became professors and novelists; the only girl, Joan, became the first woman vice-president of Pennzoil. A third brother, Peter, became a successful advertising executive and wrote mystery novels. Helen Bechtold, their adored mother, was a beauty and a wit. Donald Junior’s second wife and lifelong friend, Helen Moore Barthelme, in an admiring memoir she wrote even after being dumped for a younger woman, compared them all to the James family (Henry, not Jesse, though perhaps, it being the West, there was a touch of both) in stature and accomplishment.
The family home, as a material structure and as a venue for intellectual conversation, stood out in Houston. The house was designed by their father and was part of his modernist crusade. The furniture “was architect furniture, a lot of swoopy Scandinavian stuff,” according to the baby of the brood, Steven. Moreover, the master bedroom had no door, which seems almost unimaginable for that era. Both Donalds revered as biblical Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism, a book presented to the son by his dad.
In view of all this, that Donald Barthelme the writer would marry a woman with the same name as his mother, then later travel to Scandinavia and marry a Dane, read the writings of Freud, become famous for his own aesthetic crusade, and pen a novel Oedipally titled The Dead Father might seem something of a foregone conclusion and a biographer’s delight—or perhaps, in the way of foregone conclusions, a biographer’s headache.
Moreover, the first part of Tracy Daugherty’s book has to negotiate many ambiguous antecedents and much referential confusion about which Donald Barthelme it is discussing, père or fils (later in life the father’s entry in Who’s Who was still “much longer” than the son’s, which gave the junior Barthelme a good guffaw). Mr. Barthelme the architect was also given to cleverness and mischief similar to his son’s: when he designed Texas’s Hall of State, he had carved into the frieze of the building the names of fifty-nine legendary Texans. According to Daugherty:
The first letters of the first eight names, reading left to right—Burleson, Archer, Rusk, Travis, Higg, Ellis, Lamar, and Milam—spell the architect’s name, minus only the final e. A playful touch, a buried secret: These would become hallmarks of his eldest son’s art, as well.
The son’s life was full of fits and starts. There was Catholic school and a desire to be part of the arts—but which one? There was college interrupted and gone uncompleted. There were (eventually) four marriages. There were early stabs at newspaper work, music (he was briefly the drummer in a touring band), museum directing, journal editing. What he most needed took him a surprisingly long time to do: leave Houston and move to New York. A stint as a soldier in Korea, two Texan marriages, and four dead babies with his second wife—infants whose bodies were given to medical research, so there were no graves and no old-fashioned-style mourning—perhaps took the wind out of his sails (his first wife said she left him because she wanted to see the world and Don didn’t). But his restlessness and unhappiness in Houston had to be diagnosed by a psychotherapist as his simply needing to get out of town. He then began to believe it.
Donald Barthelme didn’t set foot in New York until he was already in his thirties—unusual for an American writer. At a Staten Island literary conference, where Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow, and Edward Albee were the faculty, Barthelme arrived as a customer. It was July 1961 and he wanted to get the great Mr. Bellow’s opinion of his short stories, which was, it turned out, not a happy one. Barthelme’s narrative collages, his “serious toys” infused with American music and French theory, seemed to Bellow to lack an inner life; Bellow was cranky already at having to do this conference in order to make his alimony payments.
In a way, Barthelme’s work was all inner life, partially concealed, partially displayed. His stories are a registration of a certain kind of churning mind, cerebral fragments stitched together in the bricolage fashion of beatnik poetry. The muzzled cool, the giddy play, the tossed salad of high and low: everything from cartoon characters to opera gets referenced in a graffitti-like chain of sentences. Conventional narrative ideas of motivation and characterization generally are dispensed with. Language is seen as having its own random and self-generating vital life, a subject he takes on explicitly in the story “Sentence,” which is one long never-ending sentence, full of self-interruptions and searching detours and not quite dead ends (like human DNA itself, with its inert, junk viruses), concluding with the words “a structure to be treasured for its weakness as opposed to the strength of stones.”
The story “For I’m the Boy Whose Only Joy Is Loving You”—whose lilting title refers not to the Irish ballad “Bold O’Donahue,” as Daugherty insists, but to an old Bing Crosby song called “Remember Me”—ends with a character’s memory of Tuesday Weld turning from the screen to tell him that he was a good man. “He had immediately gotten up and walked out of the theater, gratification singing in his heart.” When he is then physically assaulted, salt emerges from his eyes and “black blood from his ears, and from his mouth, all sorts of words.” A belief in language and culture persists indomitably in Barthelme’s sad, hip world and makes life worthwhile and deserving of what Thomas Pynchon has called “the radiant quality” of Barthelme’s attention.
The ultramodern architecture of Barthelme’s childhood no doubt lent him confidence and comfort with the ultra-contemporary literary object. Poetry could be collected intact from the world, then stripped and compressed; a story could be a mosaic torqued to mirror human anxiety. One early story, “The Piano Player,” from his first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, begins this way:
Outside his window five-year-old Priscilla Hess, square and squat as a mailbox (red sweater, blue lumpy corduroy pants), looked around poignantly for someone to wipe her overflowing nose. There was a butterfly locked inside that mailbox, surely; would it ever escape? Or was the quality of mailboxness stuck to her forever, like her parents, like her name? The sky was sunny and blue. A filet of green Silly Putty disappeared into fat Priscilla Hess and he turned to greet his wife who was crawling through the door on her hands and knees.
“Yes?” he said. “What now?”
“I’m ugly,” she said, sitting back on her haunches. “Our children are ugly.”
“Nonsense,” Brian said sharply. “They’re wonderful children. Wonderful and beautiful. Other people’s children are ugly, not our children. Now get up and go back out to the smokeroom. You’re supposed to be curing a ham.”
“The ham died,” she said. “I couldn’t cure it. I tried everything. You don’t love me any more. The penicillin was stale. I’m ugly and so are the children. It said to tell you goodbye.”
“The ham,” she said. “Is one of our children named Ambrose?…” She made a moue and ran a hand through her artichoke hair. “The house is rusting away. Why did you want a steel house? Why did I think I wanted to live in Connecticut? I don’t know.”
“Get up,” he said softly, “get up, dearly beloved. Stand up and sing. Sing Parsifal.”
“I want a Triumph,” she said from the floor.
The placement of unexpected things side by side is not only the spirit of surrealism but also the beating heart of both comedy and nightmare, and Barthelme’s work, despite its seemingly offhand oddness and its flouting of conventional storytelling, was capable of suddenly cohering in the marvelous way of Kafka. In the blackly humorous “The School,” death pervades all the group projects of an elementary school class, as the children themselves both decry and embrace it. In “Me and Miss Mandible,” a grown man awakes to find himself back in the fourth grade. These two stories, along with “Shower of Gold,” whose setting is a television game show, are perhaps Barthelme’s most widely anthologized stories, more conservatively structured, and “screamingly funny” although, apart from the undercurrent of horror, they are not especially typical.
Most of Barthelme’s stories are, in the way of “The Piano Player,” or “For I’m the Boy,” “sites of linguistic clustering,” cobbled verbal scraps collected jazzily in Joycean fashion from the buzzing urban culture to which he was so alert. He was a rainbow coalition ventriloquist and his denser stories perhaps gasp for air. That his first three decades were spent in Houston, a sprawling city without zoning ordinances and resplendent with surreal juxtapositions (billboards next to churches next to barbecue shacks), must have been a deep and abiding influence—though his early reading of Mallarmé is usually given the credit. Although at times his stories were similar to a political sketch by, say, Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce (though Barthelme admired S.J. Perelman, Perelman did not return the love and actually went as far as to complain to The New Yorker about Barthelme’s work when it began regularly appearing there), other times in their experimentalism and absurdist poetic chat (girded with a plangent cry) they could resemble a cross between Gregory Corso’s “Marriage” and the Guy Marks song “Your Red Scarf Matches Your Eyes.”
Barthelme indeed loved songs but worked hard to avoid any explicit sentimentality. Yet one can see how pure avoidance of sentimentality is impossible for him and he often leaves it lying about in small shards for the (op-tional) taking. One reviewer called Barthelme’s literary terrain “the cratered landscape of the broken heart.” His short story “How I Write My Songs” is sturdy satire but beneath it is the voice of someone who is broke and clinging to the stilted truisms and timbers of a wrecked commercial ship. “The main thing is to persevere and to believe in yourself, no matter what the attitude of others may be or appears to be.” Bellow’s criticism to Barthelme’s face—“Do you really believe it’s that hard for people to talk to each other?”—shows that an avant-garde literary mind emerging from an emotionally laconic Texan male society to direct an art museum and read books translated from German and French (a collage in human form, a bricoleur in cowboy boots) was bound to be at least occasionally misunderstood. Geniuses can be the first to recognize one another and just as often the last.
In Tracy Daugherty’s extensive discussion of Barthelme’s work he has a literary scholar’s predilection for locating, as if they were truffles, “lifts” and “echoes” and “resonant touchstones” (from Eliot, from Perelman, from Woolf). This sort of detective work, as if it were mapping the genome of a narrative, may seem to some the downside of graduate literary education (Daugherty was once in fact a graduate student of Barthelme’s): to paraphrase our current poet laureate, Kay Ryan, why become a doctor of something that can’t be fixed? Daugherty’s determined textual sleuthing—the kind of thing an average reader can now do on Google—means to be respectful and interesting, but it strains and sweats and risks the inadvertently hostile result of seeming to want to undermine the originality of the writer, one whom Daugherty himself claims as radical and original and at one point “the nation’s finest prose stylist.”
Daugherty’s comparisons are labor-intensive and sometimes unconvincing—“the sentences echo Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground,” he says even of an early newspaper article—and this gumshoe’s persistence in tracking down influences and mimicries, serendipitous or intentional, sometimes bogs the biographer down:
Time ran an article on Black Orpheus and the French New Wave…. Whether or not Don was thinking of this article, he clearly had in mind Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer as he began reworking “The Hiding Man.”…Like Ralph Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man, Burlingame has freed himself from the received ideas of society and church.
Even describing Barthelme’s early adult life in Houston, Daugherty can get startlingly sidetracked:
In the first seven months of his marriage, Don, in his capacity as an arts reviewer, could offer his wife a wide array of cultural excitement (whenever he could get her out)—from an evening of Mozart piano sonatas performed by Paur Badura-Skoda, fresh from the Viennese Conservatory, to the Latin singing of Joaquin Garay, best known as the voice of Panchito in Disney’s The Three Caballeros (“Disney’s horniest animated feature,” according to one reviewer).
The inner core of the biographical subject is invariably elusive, the golden needle in the biographer’s haystack of research. So what do we really want from a literary biography? Photographs, an index, a little gossip? Daugherty is cooperative on all these fronts. Among the many images collected in the book’s glossy inserts there are all four wives and both daughters; there are pictures of the young Barthelme with the impish look of a game show host, replete with ironic smirk and a pair of thick-framed glasses. (Later, bearded and brooding wanly, his boyish sparkle fading, he was said by Pynchon to resemble Solzhenitsyn.) There are the beautiful Greenwich Village digs and more than one cigarette thrusting toward the camera lens. The index is admirable in the hypnotic way of indexes. And for gossip Daugherty lets us in on a brief affair Barthelme had with Grace Paley (all that short story heat!). Paley lived across the street from him on West 11th Street and Barthelme dedicated his sixth collection of stories, Amateurs, to her. There is also the tragedy of his third wife, who committed suicide by leaping off a roof in Copenhagen.
But in reading about a writer’s life, what are we finally asking for? A mystery to be solved? To desire a coherent creature to emerge from scholarly clutter may be too wishful. A literary subject, trapped within the awkward amber of someone else’s prose voice, is offered up to the world in the stylistic rhythms and commonplaces of biographical storytelling (“Whereas Downtown writing seemed content with polemics, Don had always yearned for transcendence”). This situation, unless twisted into satire, would only be anathema to most subjects, especially one whose ear was as attuned to the exquisite sentence as Barthelme’s was.
A writer whose life is being given its enduring contours by the pen of a former student (Daugherty begins his book with a wonderfully memorable anecdote of an assignment and late-night call from Professor Barthelme) sets itself up to be a fraught endeavor. Moreover, scholarly baggage and enthusiasm can produce a quality of overstuffedness, making one long for the brisk incisive stroll of a nonacademic biographer like Daniel Mark Epstein, Calvin Tompkins, or Diane Middlebrook. What can be hoped for here, even if vainly?
Suspense. Which is an unlikely effect in the life story of a famous contemporary writer—especially one whose life was essentially an ordinary bourgeois one—and yet Tracy Daugherty manages to bring about this improbable thing. His book is a page-turner. One reads eagerly, chapter to chapter, marriage to marriage, waiting to see what happens next. That Daughtery has ferreted out this element and put it to use is an amazing and rare accomplishment.