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Donald Barthelme: Weirdly Brilliant

The writer of often bizarre short stories is among the most interesting and underrated artists of the last few decades.

Portrait of American author Donald Barthelme (1931 - 1989) as he poses, one leg up on a chair and a cigarette in his hand, at his home, New York, 1964. (Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images)

Collected Stories, by Donald Barthelme, edited by Charles McGrath, (Library of America: 2021), 1,004 pages

Do the stories of Donald Barthelme belong in the Library of America?

Yes. He is among the most interesting American writers to appear since the end of World War II, and his work has held up better than that of many of his much-honored peers. When the blather about “postmodernism” has blessedly been consigned to the recycling bin, a first-rate Barthelme story is still an uncanny object. “Superbly comic and deeply melancholy,” said an ancient review in his hometown newspaper, the Houston Post. What they said then remains true today.

How do you expect this massive volume to be received?

I don’t know, but here’s what I’m hoping for: that it will occasion a lot of reviews and a few wide-swath retrospectives that will prompt some younger readers to investigate further. Among their bookish contemporaries whom I know, very few seem to have read Barthelme at all.

I do expect a high-profile hit-piece or two. Barthelme was a sinner, like all of us, and some of his sins are among those particularly singled out for censure today. In Hiding Man: A Life of Donald Barthelme, published in 2009, Tracy Daugherty, a former student of Barthelme’s and himself a well-regarded writer of fiction, didn’t ignore his subject’s cavalier treatment of women, though he treated the subject differently than a biographer would be likely to do today. (Hiding Man remains must-reading for anyone interested in the author of “The Indian Uprising,” “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” “The Rise of Capitalism,” and many other weirdly brilliant stories.)

What is the single biggest misconception about Barthelme?

If I have to single out one, it would be the failure to recognize the extent to which he was a Catholic writer. He was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic high school until he was fed up with the place and left partway through for another school (after he and a friend hitchhiked to Mexico, prompting their fathers to come down and retrieve them). He rejected the church, but his precocious intelligence and his lifelong sensibility were formed in that setting.

Many critics have noted the appearance of catechesis in his stories, but the influence of his religious formation went far beyond that, into a tangle of mockery, guilt, and shadowy reconciliation, a pattern sustained from his earliest work to his last. His stories invite readers into an uncomfortable complicity, where we are encouraged to enjoy the thrill of some “forbidden” attitude, feeling very sophisticated as we do so, only to have the rug pulled out from under us; see, for example, the superb story “Subpoena,” published in the 1972 collection Sadness.

I don’t recall that story. Could you say a bit about it?

Sure. It appears in Sadness just before the story entitled “Catechist.” As so often in Barthelme, it opens with a parody, in this case of an unwelcome official document. That is sustained for the first three paragraphs, at the end of which we still don’t know what, in the judgment of “Citizen Bergman” at the “Bureau of Compliance,” our unnamed narrator is supposed to be guilty of.

The fourth paragraph makes the turn that’s found early in many Barthelme stories, from one register to another: “It appears that you are the owner or proprietor perhaps of a monster going under the name of Charles Evan Hughes.” A monster? Moreover one named Charles Evan Hughes, a distinguished jurist, for some years Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? Absurd, and yet somehow delicious.

We shift back suddenly to the parody of bureaucracy, with this creepy new element foregrounded:

“This monster being of humanoid appearance and characteristics, including ability to locomote, production of speech of a kind, ingestion of viands, and traffic with other beings?”

“Well, ‘traffic’ is hardly the word. Simple commands he can cope with. Nothing fancy. Sit. Eat. Speak. Roll over. Beg. That sort of thing.”

Quickly we learn that the narrator has failed to submit “Form 244 which governs paid companionship, including liaisons with prostitutes and pushing of wheelchairs by orderlies not provided by the Bureau of Perpetual Help.” As a result, he is subject to absurdly extortionate penalties on top of the heavy Paid Companionship Tax that he failed to pay over the course of five years, “which I believe is the period in question.”

This takes us into the top part of the third page of a story that’s not even four full pages long. After a small text-break, the story continues to its conclusion, with the narrator now at home with Charles. And here there’s another shift in register, to the conclusion, which is invested with a mixture of grotesque absurdity, genuine pathos, and something else harder to define—an almost hidden sense of sin, perhaps, a combination I haven’t encountered in any other writer.

Did anything in the LOA edition surprise you?

It’s very well done. That’s not a surprise. LOA editions are routinely first-rate. I was surprised to see that the volume includes an introduction, by Charles McGrath, an editor at The New Yorker when Barthelme was a regular contributor, and since then a fixture at the New York Times. I have liked the LOA’s policy of eschewing introductions, and of course I don’t agree with McGrath at every point, but he was an excellent choice for this job, and his comments on Barthelme are worth chewing on. “He’s a one-off,” McGrath says, “and that turns out to be his greatest claim on posterity: he’s like no one else.”

John Wilson is former editor of Books & Culture.

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