I doubt that Donald Barthelme’s new collection will alter significantly anyone’s perception of this accomplished miniaturist. His admirers can again enjoy the delicacy with which he picks his way through the detritus of our civilization, marvel at the many voices he commands, and renew their appetites for the surreal morsels he serves up. Those who have been less impressed in the past will find yet another occasion to shrug. The one really innovative feature of Great Days is Barthelme’s use, in seven of the pieces, of a staccato dialogue form in which two speakers bounce phrases off one another at high speed; sometimes the phrases answer each other, often they do not. Uninterrupted by narrative or description, the dialogues vibrate at high intensity, achieving a strobe-lit effect that can be pleasurably nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the pieces stop short of a sensory overload.
In “The Crisis,” the dialogue really consists of the juxtaposition of two monologues—one that comments on the progress of a rebellion, another that rambles on inanely, frequently mouthing platitudes.
—What have the rebels captured thus far? One zoo, not our best zoo, and a cemetery. The rebels have entered the cages of the tamer animals and are playing with them, gently.
—Things can get better, and in my opinion will.
—Their Graves Registration procedures are scrupulous—accurate and fair.
—There’s more to it than playing guitars and clapping along. Although that frequently gets people in the mood.
—Their methods are direct, not subtle. Dissolution, leaching, sand-blasting, cracking and melting of fireproof doors, condemnation, water damage, slide presentations, clamps and buckles.
—And scepticism, although absolutely necessary, leads to not very much.
Toward the end of “The Crisis,” the monologues converge slightly. Meanwhile, their incongruities have reflected that quality of twitchy contemporaneity to which Barthelme is so perfectly attuned.
The most ambitious of the dialogues is “The New Music,” in which riffs and flights of language create an extraordinary medley of sound effects that evoke nearly a century of ragtime, blues, and jazz. The two speakers shift voices frequently, but the voice that throbs most insistently is low-down Southern, as in the exchange which summons the image of a powerful, pistol-packing Momma. She makes her appearance after one of the speakers says, “I find the latest music terrific, although I don’t generally speaking care much for the new, qua new. But this new music! It has won from our group the steadiest attention”—a wonderfully priggish introduction to what follows:
—Momma didn’t ‘low no clarinet played in here. Unfortunately.
—Momma didn’t ‘low no clarinet played in here. Made me sad.
—Momma was outside.
—Momma was very outside.
—Sitting there ‘lowing and not-‘lowing. In her old rocking chair.
—’Lowing this, not-‘lowing that.
—Didn’t ‘low oboe.
—Didn’t ‘low gitfiddle. Vibes.
—Rock over your damn foot and bust it, you didn’t pop to when she was ‘lowing and not-‘lowing.
But Momma is also “lost in the Eleusinian mysteries and the art of love”; while in her rocking chair she is given to pondering “The goddess Demeter’s anguish for all her children’s mortality.” There is a reference to “The chanting in the darkened telesterion,” to the appearance of Persephone herself—“Accepting offerings, balls of salt, solid gold serpents, fig branches, figs,” and to “Hallucinatory dancing. All the women drunk.” Here—and in other places—Barthelme seems to be alluding to, as well as employing, the technique of startling cultural juxtapositions we associate with T.S. Eliot, the Eliot of the Sweeney poems and The Waste Land (“O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—/ It’s so elegant / So intelligent”). But whereas Eliot opposes the “meaningful” past to the trivialized present in a mood of despairing irony, I do not get the impression that Barthelme is concerned with shoring up fragments against his ruin; instead, he appears perfectly content to play with the fragments of past and present alike, to rattle them in a can, to make a little music. As one of the speakers says at the end of the piece, “The new music burns things together, like a welder. The new music says, life becomes more and more exciting as there is less and less time.” To which the other replies, “Momma wouldn’t have ‘lowed it. But Momma’s gone.”
A quasi-musical organization is evident in almost all the pieces (which I see no point in calling stories—even for convenience’s sake). A phrase is typically introduced, repeated, varied, placed in surprising contexts, sounded for one last time. Sometimes the motif is a visual image, which also undergoes modifications. In the tiny, fragile, and often beautiful historical fantasy called “Cortés and Montezuma,” the repeated phrase is “walking down by the docks.” Usually it is Cortés and Montezuma who are walking; once they are joined by the Emperor Charles V; on another occasion the walkers are Doña Marina and her lover Cuitlahuac, Lord of the Place of the Dunged Water; finally the ghosts of Cortés and Montezuma walk, hand in hand. The recurrent image, variously linked with the strollers, is of little green flies, sometimes brushed away by a fly whisk made of golden wires.
One other piece—“Concerning the Bodyguard”—is admirable. Constructed of short paragraphs which consist almost entirely of unanswered questions, it introduces a series of images which, though innocent enough in themselves, create an ominous atmosphere of political assassination when assembled: young men with black beards, Citroëns, Mercedes, BMW motorcycles, a slogan in black spray paint, a Royale Filtre cigarette, a restaurant called the Crocodile…. One paragraph informs us that all over the country “bottles of champagne have been iced, put away, reserved for a special day,” and asks, “Is the bodyguard aware of this?” The question receives its subtle and chilling answer at the very end: “Is it the case that, on a certain morning, the garbage cans of the city, the garbage cans of the entire country, are overflowing with empty champagne bottles? Which bodyguard is at fault?”
Having for the most part denied himself the sustaining props of narrative fiction, Barthelme must make his impact immediately, and within a small compass. The longer works—the so-called novels—become quickly mired in tedium, a tedium that is not dispelled or transcended, as in the case of “difficult” great books, by an intelligent reader’s perseverance. Even with his successful short pieces, Barthelme is surely the most ephemeral of the gifted writers of our time. I suspect that others beside myself have difficulty in recalling his pieces from one collection to the next—or in retaining anything of Snow White or The Dead Father except the schema of each, which sticks to the memory like a burr after the episodes and details have drifted away.
When all his talents are engaged—his wit, his stylistic precision, his powers of mimicry—in the pursuit of one of those bizarre possibilities that excite his imagination, Barthelme is indeed a verbal wondermaker, providing not only a succession of gaily wrapped surprises but moments of sharp sensory pleasure and sometimes the fleeting illusion of profundity; when they are not so engaged, the results are little more than a kind of clever doodling. I think Barthelme scores very well in five or six of the sixteen items that make up Great Days; the experience of reading the others seemed to me like the blowing of dandelion fluff: an inconsequential but not unpleasant way of passing the time.
I would be hard pressed to find a greater contrast to the mode and sensibility of Donald Barthelme than the macho-naturalistic pose of Richard Price’s first two novels. For this young writer has not only resaddled Zola’s old war horse but has galloped away on him as if the barbed wire and land mines of modernism had all been swept from the field. It is perhaps a portent of shifting taste that The Wanderers (1974) and Blood Brothers (1976) have secured for him a considerable following among college-age readers. Like James T. Farrell and Hubert Selby, Jr., before him, Price has chosen in these books to write about a segment of the urban working class—in this case Italian-American inhabitants of the northeast Bronx—with some admixture of the lumpenproletariat from various ethnic groups, including blacks. Though he has obviously observed the prototypes of his fictional characters very closely, has perhaps lived next door to them, has certainly listened to the music they listen to, and has, above all, made a hi-fi mental recording of the repetitious and usually obscene banality of their speech, Price tends, I think, to simplify the louts, punks, hard-hats, psychotic mothers, savage fathers, and suffering kids that he writes about—sometimes to the point of stereotyping.
While one cannot, from a fairly sheltered middle-class perspective, question the authenticity of his documentation with any great assurance, one can guess that, as in the case of Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, a high degree of selectivity has been exercised—a selectivity biased so heavily toward violence, brutality, and melodrama as to suggest that an inverse sentimentalism has been indulged. There is not a hint of genial domesticity among these Gennaros, Caputos, and De Cocos; no hint that the Catholic Church might provide something in their lives besides nuns to whop the shit out of kids in parochial schools. The Italian-American equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League might conceivably have a case here.
Of the two early novels, The Wanderers, a loose-jointed collection of episodes in the lives of a teenage gang in the early 1960s, is certainly the superior; it has its moments of gory humor (an exuberantly narrated, Godfather-like revenge on some sharpers in a bowling alley), a certain amount of sexual farce as well as the heavy-breathing stuff, and several instances of grotesque invention (such as the rival gang of mute Irish dwarfs known as the Ducky Boys) to relieve this chronicle of young lives that are indeed nasty, brutish, and frequently short. Blood Brothers, a thickly plotted novel of fathers and sons, is nearly as crude as the film which was based upon it. Although Price is relentlessly phonetic in recording the dialogue of his characters (“dunno,” “whozzat,” “gonna,” “whyncha,” “whatta”), he has, in these two novels, no discernible style of his own. To make much of a case for either of them, one must fall back upon such phrases as “unforgettable scenes of raw power” or mumble something about the dark side of the American Dream.
Now, with Ladies Man, Price has written a novel that leaps to another level of achievement. It tells us, in the first person, about seven days in the highly urbanized, increasingly frantic life of a young door-to-door seller of housewares, Kenny Becker. When first encountered, Kenny is masochistically attached to an angry, mixed-up, scatty young woman called (beautifully enough) La Donna, who, despite the fact that her singing “sucks,” is determined to make a career for herself as a nightclub singer; meanwhile, she is much too frazzled to make herself available sexually to the panting, slavering Kenny. The opening section (Monday) mostly takes place in a “showcase” club where amateurs with show-biz aspirations (and such names as Mona Nucleosis, Jackie di Paris, and Club Steak) perform their acts before a heckling audience urged on by a sadistic emcee. It is a sustained set-piece, alternately funny and pathetic, in which Kenny tries to be encouraging and La Donna, predictably, bombs.
From this low point things degenerate quickly. Kenny comes home from work the next day, hears what he at first takes to be the buzzing of his electric razor, decides next that it must be the alarm clock, and finally opens the bedroom door to discover that the buzz is coming from a vibrator that La Donna is at that moment applying to herself. Outraged and rejected, Kenny rushes from the apartment.
I turned in spaced-out circles in the hallway waiting for the elevator when suddenly I had this feeling that if I waited one more second my apartment would explode outward in a rolling ball of flame followed by La Donna screaming her head off and swinging a sword as big as justice. I took the stairs four at a time down ten flights …and made it out to the street. The minute I hit the sidewalk my whole body felt licked by a damp chill…. The gray was disappearing into early evening and the apartment buildings on West End Avenue resembled a long row of dead cash registers.
Now begins the lonely passion of Kenny Becker. Beset by erotomania, he does pushups, makes his housecalls, and in the evening seeks relief at movies, singles bars, masturbatory peep shows, and massage parlors. Nearly maddened by his isolation, longing for friendship, he encounters an old high-school buddy, Donny, who, on their second meeting, reveals that he has turned gay. On Saturday night Donny conducts the gawking Kenny (and the reader) on a tour of the gay bars and orgy-dungeons of the West Village—a tour that seems to have been designed by Price to gouge out the eyes of any inhabitant of the Bible belt who might accidentally pick up the book. At the end, Kenny, more desperate than ever, does 326 pushups, passes out, wakes up, goes to hear La Donna perform once more at the showcase, calls up Donny and arranges to meet him for dinner.
Price has by no means outgrown the sentimental sensationalism of his earlier novels. His impulse to épater les bourgeois, while at the same time indulging their and (presumably his) nostalgie de la boue, is as strong as ever. What raises Ladies Man far above the morass of subliterary fiction is the characterization of Kenny Becker and the wonderfully supple voice that Price has found for him. Defensive, wary, self-torturing, Kenny yearns for intimacy, panics when such a connection seems likely, and can apparently love only those who will reject him. Despite his thirty years, Kenny regularly sees himself not as a man but as “a kid or a guy.” And he sounds like one: hip, streetwise, dirty-talking, with a total recall of every movie he has ever seen, every record he has ever heard. Price does not simplify him as he does the Italian brawlers in the other novels. Kenny’s jokes are often funny, if rueful; known as Kenny the Riffer as a school-boy, he clowns his way through every encounter, even when wincing with pain. The constant hyperbole of his speech is immensely effective in creating metaphors for the particular New York world that Kenny experiences. The reception room of the massage parlor he visits is like “the waiting room of a ghetto dentist.” A lonely old German woman with “sandbag breasts and big red hands” that looked “as if they were in raw meat all day” buys everything that Kenny offers to sell her, just to keep him around “making human noises.” Then she introduces the catallergic Kenny to her seven or eight cats.
…you have no idea what a schmuck you feel like nodding hello to a cat—I had to split. I felt as if there was a big hairy angora stuffed comfortably inside each lung and I wasn’t so much breathing as leaking air. I even started sneezing blood.
The language is vividly alive—though so dependent upon the slang of the moment that it will probably date rather quickly; meanwhile it offers an exhilarating ride for anyone willing to accompany Kenny on his smash-up course.
For me the most original and impressive book of the three under review is the third novel of Charles Simmons, a middle-aged writer whose first novel, Powdered Eggs, enjoyed some success (and notoriety) in 1964, and whose second, An Old-Fashioned Darling, made almost no splash at all. Wrinkles is a lean, clear-eyed, disillusioned book consisting entirely of forty or more very short, self-contained chapters, each of which carries the unnamed protagonist from childhood to old age, shifting, as it does so, from the past to the present and then to the future tense. Each of these tiny chapters—they are only three or four pages long—is organized around a theme or topic that undergoes modification or development over the span of years. “Cotton was friendly to him, wool was not”—so begins the chapter on clothes. Others (in no particular order) concern school, religion, cheating, movies, parenthood, regret and missed opportunities, working with wood, numbers, genitalia, vehicles, Jews, the bodies of women, homosexuality, money, oral needs, doctors, death, etc.
Each chapter is narrated in a spare, classically balanced prose that contains few proper names and almost no dialogue but a sufficiency of incident and detail to create an effect of density. The chapter on religion, for instance, starts with this sentence: “His mother was a practicing Catholic, his father a nominal Protestant; as a result he was brought up Catholic and religion was not discussed at home.” It follows the growing boy’s experience with teaching nuns and Jesuits, moves on to his loss of faith, his arguments with his wife about the existence of God, his later attitudes (“He is drawn to politicians who claim to believe in God because he has come to think that the historical excesses of the century could not have been committed in a religious time”), to his final, desolating conclusion: “As he watches contemporaries die he will see that nuns make the best nurses.” Often the development of a theme takes surprising directions. From the opening, “If his father left a cigarette butt in the toilet bowl he tried to break it up with a stream of urine,” who would guess that the association would lead to arcs, projective devices, rifles; to dropping snowballs or marbles from a window; to ejaculation, rockets, and tennis; to tossing balls back to small children in a park; and at last, dismally, to urination again?
From the sum of these chapters a life emerges. It is not a particularly admirable life; nor is it despicable. It is the life of un homme moyen sensuel of our times. “He” grows up, gets expelled from a parochial school, serves in the army during World War II, marries a girl from an uneducated family, has two daughters, writes a novel, has affairs, gets divorced, lives alone and drinks too much, sees a younger man promoted over him in his job, writes another novel, in his fifties falls in love with a much younger woman who leaves her husband to live with him; suffers from the disintegration of the relationship, moves to a separate bedroom, lives alone again—and then? The rest is hardly silence, but the speculations about old age are hardly inspiriting. The last sentences sometimes have the ring of aphorism.
As his functions fail he will blame recent minor illnesses rather than age and claim that soon again he will be able to go out by himself, prepare bachelor meals for his friends, take care of his finances; when he explains this to his daughters they will become silent and he will have a restless night.
As he gets older he will sometimes try to inquire into his deepest wishes, hoping to find a weariness with life that would make death less fearsome, but can’t.
As time goes on he will realize that his birthdays rather than accomplishments are looked on as postponements.
Charles Simmons insists upon an unsparing recognition of our lesser selves, of whatever is mean-spirited, treacherous, ignobly lustful, and generally disreputable in our nature. In Simmons the other elements—the decencies, the tolerances, and the capacity for love—are there too, but they are scarcely emphasized. Simmons’s protagonist is pitiless in his scrutiny of his own motivation and impulses—he will admit to an instant’s gladness on learning of Kennedy’s death, even though he admired the president. He is no gentler with others than himself.
One day a book critic, confident of an affirmative answer, asked him if he did not think true novelists enjoyed lying. He said no, he told the truth whenever he could. The critic did not press the point, but he could see that the critic preferred to maintain the notion rather than think of him as a novelist.
Art based upon such lucidity can be bracing rather than depressing—especially when it is shaped with an elegance that transforms the ordinary human muck from which it is lifted. I hope very much that this wry book finds the wide readership that it merits.
January 25, 1979