The Rocket

Barthelme Introduction

Introduction to The Writings of Donald Barthelme

Though to all appearances a gathering of odds and ends, what this volume in fact offers us is the full spectrum of vintage Barthelmismo -- fictions thoughtfully concocted and comfortably beyond the reach of time, reactions less exempt from deadlines and rent payments to news of past moments that nonetheless remain our own, not to mention literary send-ups, intriguing recipes, magisterially extended metaphors, television programming that never was, strangely illuminated dreams, elegant ranting, debonair raving, and more, much more.
The do-it-yourself hypertextualist will get a chance to browse and recombine, often with striking results. Scattered about in here, for instance, are half a dozen or so pieces that, taken together, define a single vexed meditation upon the Watergate Affair of the seventies, which could profitably be consulted by future historians seeking to understand that Byzantine daytime drama. This is assuming that Barthelme got it by way of the Tube, right in the lateral geniculates like the rest of us, in which case readers might then also like to refer to "And Now Let's Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!" a good general rundown on Don. B.'s viewing procedures, as well as evidence of the radiant quality of his attention.
Trying to describe Barthelme's politics is as dodgy as trying to label his work, but Watergate sure did get him revved up. Nixon by then had already mutated into a desperate and impersonal force, no longer your traditionally human-type President, but now some faceless subgod of folly. Barthelme, perhaps as a species of anarchist curse, just calls him "the President." The rage behind it, provoked by the ongoing spectacle of national politics in the U.S. as presided over by anybody, is natural enough if you look at the regimes Barthelme happened to be working under. Among many sad consequences of his passing is that we won't know what he might have done with Bush as a subject, although "Kissing the President," in its consideration of Reagan, may give off premonitory hints.
Another combination of interest is the interchapter material from Overnight to Many Distant Cities, which furnishes an instance of Barthelme's way with dream material. One out of several humiliating features about writing fiction for a living is that here after all is just about everybody else, all along the capitalist spectrum from piano movers to systems analysts, cheerfully selling their bodies or body parts according to time-honored custom and usage, while it's only writers, out at the fringes of the entertainment sector, wretched and despised, who are obliged, more intimately and painfully, actually to sell their dreams, yes dreams these days you'll find are every bit as commoditized as any pork bellies there on the financial page. To be upbeat about it, though, in most cases it doesn't present much moral problem since dreams seldom make it through into print with anything like the original production values anyway. Even if you do good recovery learning to write legibly in the dark and so forth, there's still the matter of getting it down in words that can bring back even a little of the clarity and sweep, the intensity of emotion, the transcendent weirdness of the primary experience. So it's a safe bet that most writers' dreams, maybe even including the best ones, manage to stay untranslated and private after all.
Barthelme, however, happens to be one of a handful of American authors, there to make the rest of us look bad, who know instinctively how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight "reality." What he called his "secret vice" of "cutting up and pasting together pictures" bears an analogy, at least, to what is supposed to go on in dreams, where images from the public domain are said likewise to combine in unique private, with luck spiritually useful, ways. How exactly Barthelme then got this into print, or for that matter pictorial, form, kept the transitions flowing the way he did and so on, is way too mysterious for me, though out of guild solidarity I probably wouldn't share it even if I did know. The effect each time, at any rate, is to put us in the presence of something already eerily familiar . . . to remind us that we have lived in these visionary cities and haunted forests, that the ancient faces we gaze into are faces we know. . . .
Of course Barthelme could work in more daylit modes as well. The parodies of works that for one reason and another gave him the pip, though wicked, are straightforward enough. "Two Hours to Curtain" is a closely observed and affectionate piece of reporting. The radio plays and pieces like "The Joker's Greatest Triumph" suggest how much sheer fun he must have had writing dialogue. You can feel him sometimes getting lightheaded with it. It could be generational, the result of coming up during the "golden age" of radio drama, when speech, music, and sound effects had to fill the audience's attention and carry the whole show. I imagine him working on the Batman piece trying not to laugh too much at his own work because that might get in the way of maintaining the idiotically slow pulse he wanted, not at all his usual narrative tempo, which ran between frenzied and warp drive.
There are also pieces too free of form to be parody, too funny to be simple invective, that express Barthelme's deep annoyance with any number of selected offenders -- the federal government, Thanksgiving, just about anything from California, not perhaps geographical so much as psychological California, with its reputation for granting asylum to, call them wishful thinkers, seeking to deny, in mostly unorthodox ways, the passage of time, and what time brings in the way of aging, the evils of history, the turns of Fortune. Like most writers who are serious about what they do, Barthelme could not afford any such luxuries, and so had little patience with anyone who appeared to him to be indulging them.
See, for example, "The Teachings of Don B." Though it has the look of a writerly reflex to some piece of industry gossip about Carlos Castaneda's deal with Simon & Schuster for the first Don Juan book, Barthelme is also here enjoying a surrender to annoyance with the parties involved, the book itself, and the culture of eternal youth that has allowed it to flourish. The operative text here would seem to be from II Corinthians, "For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise." Wise satirical practice requires the sensitivity and skill of a fugu chef at controlling toxicity, that is, knowing how long to suffer, and how gladly, and when to give in to rage, and the pleasure of assaulting at last the fools in question. Barthelme's timing in this regard was flawless, though unfortunately he was prevented from becoming a worldclass curmudgeon on the order of, say, Ambrose Bierce, by the stubborn counter-rhythms of what kept on being a hopeful and unbitter heart. Much of this journeyman impatience with idiocy concealed a tenderness and geniality which always shine through whenever he drops the irony, even for a minute. That, and, of course, his inescapable sadness. That elegaic voice -- "The wives of the angry young man are now married to other people -- doctors, mostly." That "mostly." You think of the music of Dietz and Schwartz, of Fred Astaire singing Dietz and Schwartz, just that combination of grace and disenchantment, darkish lyrics and minor modalities.
Melancholy. As any Elizabethan could tell you if they all weren't dead, melancholy is a far richer and more complex ailment than simple depression. There is a generous amplitude of possibility, chances for productive behavior, even what may be identified as a sense of humor. Barthelme's was a specifically urban melancholy, related to that look of immunity to joy or even surprise seen in the faces of cab drivers, bartenders, street dealers, city editors, a wearily taken vow to persist beneath the burdens of the day and the terrors of the night. Humor in these conditions leans toward the anti-transcendent -- like jail humor and military and rodeo humor, it finds high amusement in failure and loss, and it celebrates survival one day, one disaster, to the next.
But behind Barthelme's own slick city-sophisticate disguise still lounged, alarmingly, this good old Dairy Queen regular in some conspicuous hat, around in whose backseat opened containers had been known to roll, harboring the mischievous daydreams of a Texas rounder, not to mention a lengthy stretch of DNA dedicated just to locating and enjoying various highly seasoned pork products. On the principle that you can take the boy out of the country but not vice versa, Houston, Texas, his hometown before New York, must have caused Barthelme some lively internal discomfort over the course of a love-hate affair with the place that went on, it seems, for most of his life. From what I remember of Houston at about that same time, it could have provoked the one emotion just as easily as the other, and in Texas-size quantities, too. The Astrodome was brand new in those days. Air conditioning in the city was ubiquitous. There were schemes afoot to put a dome over part of downtown and air-condition it, creating what today we would call a mall. Entire boulevards were dedicated to churches, side by side, one after another, allowing you to drop the family car in low and actually cruise places of worship. The nearest venue for dope, sex, and rock 'n' roll, then as now, was Austin. The new NASA space center out by Buffalo Bayou was hiring heavily, while from the marshlands around it, mosquitoes were busy spreading an encephalitis epidemic. Sir John Barbirolli had fashioned of the Houston symphony an exquisitely first-rate instrument, while teenage musical heresy focused on California surf culture -- though the Gulf only had surf during hurricanes, all kinds of kids could still be observed driving around with some stick in some woody, flaunting boards that never caught a wave, as if trying to make it all be Califomia. Anyplace but what it was.
Whatever psychological traces of Houston he may have retained, Barthelme fortunately also brought along his Southwestern food consciousness to New York, though the theory of Tex-Mex eats he found there must have alarmed him, based as it was on tomato sauce, and tasting like Italian food made with Tabasco. The recipes reprinted in this volume may thus have developed out of some nostalgic necessity.
Those recipes. That oxtail soup mix. That "burgoo," with the frozen ducks in it? A notable moment in chef psychopathology, to be sure -- yet such is Barthelme's genius that even the most porkophobic or duck-intolerant among us is drooling, unashamed, by recipe's end. His ingredients tend to come from outside New York, back in the U.S., brand names always good for some evocation of his native region, mostly canned or otherwise preserved, food meant to sit on shelves or in freezers for months before being used, each meal, each can opened or dinner defrosted, being an occasion for sadness, because, like using a dream or a memory in a piece of writing, it's taking something back inside the passage of time that otherwise might have continued on, suspended, exempt. This is a cuisine of solitude, suggesting too many nights of unfamilied boredom and eating over the sink, a life-style that was certainly not for Don B. He disliked being alone, preferring company, however problematical, to no company. In cities such a willingness to socialize can lead a man up peculiar streets indeed, anything from all-out Uzi-toting misanthropy to a full Dickensian embrace of human diversity, foolishness and all. But to move in that direction, to open up instead of shut down, meant risking the possibility of finding spiritual dimensions sooner or later hiding inside a space he thought he owned and knew, and what would the next step have to be after that? Herbs, crystals, astrology? California?
Nevertheless, here are two illustrated stories, "The Photographs," about the scientific discovery of the soul, and "The Dassaud Prize," about a competitive search for God, and what are we to make of them? Two British scientists, after getting into another of those stupefyingly stretched-out exchanges, agree to destroy their photographs of the soul. Their French counterparts, failing to discover God, generate as a by-product this museumful of madinventor gear. In both stories reachings after the transfinite fall apart, into twit dialogue, into eccentric technological dreaming, reentangled with Earth and the earthbound. In a writer less attendant upon the given world, this might have been occasion for some cheap glee. But this being another luxury Barthelme couldn't afford, he was obliged to stick with reliable melancholy a less dramatic mode but one he struggled for and came by honorably.
Not to try to make any case for Barthelme as any heavy-duty metaphysician. Heaven forfend. He was too connected to calendar dates and named streets, too engaged with the quotidian -- like García Márquez's magician Melquiades in One Hundred Years of Solitude, "in spite of his immense wisdom and mysterious breadth, he had a human burden, an earthly condition that kept him involved in the small problems of daily life." Because his verifiable miracles are all literary in nature, Barthelme is probably not about to make saint anytime soon, either. But along with his published work, his other great gift to us is precisely his melancholy, presented, if we will but look, as praxis and example, a way to get us through, trading off time for spectacle, now and then even providing, as they used to sing at the end of Hee Haw, "a smile and a laugh or two." If this is not exactly a guide for the perplexed, it is still a good honest push back against the forces that favor tragedy, and who of us wouldn't like to have left something like that behind us?
All things, in any event, will be set right when the biopic or Donald Barthelme Story is aired at last. This will be a made-for-cable-TV miniseries starring Barthelme lookalike Luke Perry in the title role. Paul Newman, in his first small-screen appearance, will have a cameo as Norman Mailer, for which he will win an Emmy. In the picture, Barthelme will return, sometime in the final installment, to Houston. Neighbors from long ago will bring him casseroles, Kiri Te Kanawa and Willie Nelson will come sing medleys of country classics to him in a vividly lit Astrodome before a sellout crowd. Ravishing Texas tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, played by starlets who think they have to be kind to the second assistant director, will fling themselves upon the person of Don B., cooing, squealing, gaga. Bartenders in sorrowful-looking crossroads saloons, where the records on the jukebox are all from Barthelme's youth, will fix him perfect city drinks such as martinis and Singapore slings, and everything will be on the house.
He will go sit in out-of-the-way Mexican eateries scarfing all afternoon and evening on chef specials not available to the average customer, featuring chiles you need a Department of Energy permit even to plant, and so forth. He will get the key to the city and a ride on a fire truck. Reviewers who trashed his work years ago will now fly into town, paying the full fare out of their own pockets, to apologize abjectly. All his books will show up again on the bestseller lists. Mike Ovitz of CAA will call from Hollywood with high-budget movie plans for some story the author has forgotten he wrote, and Barthelme will put him on hold while he goes to the fridge for another beer.
As catastasis yields to catastrophe, shots of Barthelme are gradually replaced with shots of people talking about him, and shots of the city, parkland, sunsets, hospitals, and the like. The last we get to see of him, Barthelme is driving some gray primercoated outlaw's dream of a Trans-Am, pulling onto some freeway, softly thundering away into the evening humidity, Lightnin' Hopkins on the soundtrack singing "Baby Please Don't Go," the camera pulling back into a helicopter shot, swooping upward as credits roll -- production, technical, Houston and New York second units, dialogue coaches, duck wranglers. Lights beginning to come on all across the crowded prairie. Album is available on Rounder Records. Studio logo. Two seconds of quiet, neutral darkness. Then a promo for the news at ten.

-- By Thomas Pynchon


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