An American original

New biography shows Barthelme as prankster, poet, pioneer

Barthelme (above, circa 1961) ''substantially expanded the range of American fiction,'' writes Daugherty. Barthelme (above, circa 1961) ''substantially expanded the range of American fiction,'' writes Daugherty. (''hiding man''/BArthelme estate)
By David Thoreen
March 22, 2009
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In the spring of 1988, the novelist Robert Coover, then teaching at Brown University, organized a conference entitled "Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction." At least in part, the celebration was to honor Coover's colleague John Hawkes, who was retiring, and the assembled participants included many of the writers who embodied American postmodernism: Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Stanley Elkin, and William Gaddis. At the panel he moderated, "Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction," critic Leslie Fiedler asked, "Why do you write? Who is your audience?" Gaddis bristled, but Barthelme answered matter-of-factly. "I know exactly who I'm writing for," he said. "They are extremely intelligent and physically attractive."

At the end of the discussion, Fiedler rankled all of the panelists, observing, "None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary, Stephen King." To combat that assertion - or at least to stave off its inevitability - Tracy Daugherty, a former student of Barthelme's and now Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University, has written "Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme."

Thoroughly researched and carefully documented (Daugherty pursues literary influences like an investigative journalist following the money), the book is more than the biography of an individual writer. Owing to Barthelme's pedigree, wide interests, and experiences, the book reads like a cultural history of the 20th century, taking in, among other things, modern architecture, the "Baltimore Catechism," the French Symbolists, Kierkegaard, jazz, the birth of television, Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave, Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum (where Barthelme served briefly as the director), Abstract Expressionism, Samuel Beckett, the 1960s, Watergate, and the rise of literary minimalism in the '80s. The result is a book that animates Barthelme and his fiction.

The eldest son of a prominent Houston architect, Barthelme was raised Catholic in a modernist house of his father's design. For Barthelme père, the house served as a living laboratory; he constantly changed the furniture, the placement of walls, the flooring. The ceaseless formal experimentation and the plasticity of style that characterize Barthelme's fiction undoubtedly have some of their roots in this upbringing. "His father taught him to notice structure," Daugherty writes, "to understand its origins, to appreciate variations on it, and to value innovation. . . . Form was not a given . . . it could wear out with time. Its manipulation - more than the content of a piece - was what distinguished one artwork from another."

Barthelme began his literary apprenticeship as a teenager, studying and imitating the work of such New Yorker regulars as James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, and Frank Sullivan, whose "Cliché Expert," Mr. Arbuthnot, rendered numerous "testimonies" in Q-and-A format between 1935 and 1952. "For Don," Daugherty notes, "these pieces were unintentional parodies of the Baltimore Catechism. . . . appealing for their skewering of overused language, their wrenching of familiar phrases into new and humorous contexts."

After a series of writing jobs, including a stint in the Second Infantry Division's Public Information Office in Korea, Barthelme moved to New York, where he began a sustained association with The New Yorker. Although he never completed a college degree, he published more than a hundred stories in the magazine, and one of "Hiding Man" 's many highlights is the unfolding epistolary relationship between Barthelme and his editor, Roger Angell. This correspondence reveals much about Barthelme's hand-to-mouth existence throughout the '60s, as well as his intentions, aspirations, and insecurities.

Four times a husband and twice a father, he won the National Book Award for a children's book, "The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine." Between 1964 and his death, in 1989, Barthelme published seven collections of short fiction, a collection of parodies marketed as "nonfiction," two omnibus volumes of stories, and the novels "Snow White," "The Dead Father," and "Paradise." His fourth novel, "The King," was published posthumously in 1990.

Daugherty reveals how Barthelme's many influences and experiences shaped his work, and in language that is clear, direct, and free of jargon he offers interesting and illuminating approaches to his fictions. In his reading of "The Indian Uprising," for instance, he yokes the Paris revolutions of 1830, 1848, 1871, and 1968 to an Honoré Daumier lithograph, "The Uprising," and to the social control implicit in Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann's mid-19th-century redesign of Paris. "The barricades and modernist aesthetics" of the Commune of 1871, Daugherty writes, "were weapons in a war against the rigid ordering of daily life, the absolute control by economic forces of every aspect of experience." A hundred years later, in America, the verbal barricades of Barthelme's own postmodern aesthetics served a similar function.

For the most part, Daugherty's presentation is modulated, and the composite portrait he paints from his many sources is convincing. In his desire to rescue Barthelme from the "usefulness of neglect," however, he produces a few indefensibly bombastic claims, and the writing of several passages seeking to present the inner workings of Barthelme's mind or reproduce his emotional states feels unusually forced and inauthentic.

That said, now seems like an ideal time for a Barthelme renaissance. By disassembling the images and narratives we consume and come to accept as the world, Barthelme reminded us that far from being "natural," our financial markets and political and religious institutions are - like our houses - historical and cultural developments. One hopes a new generation of writers will follow Barthelme's path, moving beyond the bounds of representational fiction. One hopes Tracy Daugherty's "Hiding Man" will increase our nation's available stock of extremely intelligent and physically attractive readers.

David Thoreen teaches writing and literature at Assumption College in Worcester. His most recent poems appear in Great River Review.

HIDING MAN: A Biography of Donald Barthelme By Tracy Daugherty

St. Martin's, 581 pp., illustrated, $35

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