How He Wrote His Songs

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 …

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