The Dead Father
The Famous Writers’ School, Silly Putty, “Attack of the Puppet People,” empty Schlitz cans, a Pontiac Chieftain, the Conrad Veidt Fan Club, Vogue, Debbie Reynolds, Kierkegaard, John Hawkes, Batman, the New York Times Sunday Magazine—the list is a sampling (one per story) of the ingredients of Donald Barthelme’s first book, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, and in 1964 it was surprising and delightful to find serious literary intentions being pursued with indifference to the distinction between “high” and “popular” culture.
But the radical quality of Barthelme’s early stories was often blunted by the nature of his materials and his audience. If he was writing studies in a dying culture, they were also—like The New Yorker, where most of his work appeared—meant to seem amusing and unthreatening to the creatures of that culture, living or at least imagining cosmopolitan lives while keeping up with the charming vulgarity outside.
Here is a party scene from an early story, “Up, Aloft in the Air”:
A Ray Charles record spun in the gigantic salad bowl. Buck danced the frisson with the painter’s wife Perpetua…. “I am named,” Perpetua said, “after the famous type-face designed by the famous English designer, Eric Gill, in an earlier part of our century.” “Yes,” Buck said calmly, “I know that face.” She told him softly the history of her affair with her husband, Saul Senior. Sensuously, they covered the ground. And then two ruly police gentlemen entered the room, with the guests blanching, and lettuce and romaine and radishes too flying for the exits, which were choked with grass.
The story’s Last-Days-of-Pompeii implications are covered over with Perel-man-like whimsy, and the confrontation between the licentious and the “ruly” seems less a point than an embellishment. The details are the point—Perpetua’s assumption that only the “famous” matters and that history slips away unless you keep it pinned down (“in an earlier part of our century”), Buck’s pun, the wild mixing of people and salad greens triggered by “blanched” and leading to what in 1964 would have been virtually an in-joke about “grass.” The touch is delicate, the play of associations uncannily supple, but the governing mood remains unshakably chic.
That mood was shaken in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968). These stories consider with surprising directness the pressure of political and social turmoil upon the static, ahistorical world that the culture of affluence represents as life. Barthelme’s collages begin to include strong images of ethnic vengeance (“The Indian Uprising”), crisis politics (“Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning,” “The President”), the law-and-order mentality (“The Police Band”), the purposeless technology of modern war (“Report,” “Game”). But this overtly political mood moves into more generalized forms of anxiety in City Life (1970), as if Barthelme had answered no to the question he posed in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel”: “Do you think your irony could be useful in changing the government?”
The first story in Sadness (1972) begins with a man reading the Journal of Sensory …