Sunday, February 08, 2009

'Hiding Man' by Tracy Daugherty: Biography reveals Texas author Donald Barthelme to be a modern man of letters

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, February 8, 2009
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

No recent book about a contemporary writer has been more necessary, or welcome, than Tracy Daugherty's Hiding Man, the first comprehensive biography of the late Houstonian Donald Barthelme.Barthelme is credited as being among the great late-20th century fiction writers, and one of its few exemplary postmodernists, along with John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon. In hundreds of short stories, most published in The New Yorker in the 1960s and '70s, he displayed a pyrotechnic literary technique that disoriented as often as it impressed readers.

These stories were collected in 10 volumes, starting with Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964) and culminating in two best-of anthologies, Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1984). There is a children's book, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, Or the Hithering Thithering Djinn (1971), for which he won a National Book Award, and a quartet of novels, including Snow White (1967) and The Dead Father (1975).

He had, in his time, "as much fame as a literary writer could expect in America," Daugherty writes. Today his reputation has waned, though he is credited with mentoring dozens of writers, many of whom studied with him at the University of Houston, where he taught from 1981 until his death from cancer in 1989.

As Daugherty skillfully explicates, Barthelme was born in Philadelphia but moved to Houston at age 2. He was educated in Houston Catholic schools (but graduated from Lamar High School), studied at U of H (never graduated) and reviewed movies for the old Houston Post. He was drafted into the Korean War (never fought), got serious about art (serving as a director of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston) and wrote. He moved to New York in 1962 and only returned to Texas for the job at U of H, and only then as a part-timer.

That his fiction is not so well known now is largely a consequence of its difficulty: It is often somewhat absurd, typically devoid of plot, full of esoteric allusions to history, literature (Woyzeck, Husserl), current events and his life. In its time it was described as collage. Today, we would call it a mash-up. Whatever it is, it is not careless, something Daugherty spends a great deal of his book proving.

"He wanted to join the centuries-long literary conversation, not titillate thrill-seekers looking for a Book-of-the-Month selection," Daugherty writes.

Daugherty offers a coherent case for why Barthelme is important to American literature. He argues, "Not since Poe had anyone brought such ingenuity to the form." He does an exemplary job of connecting the man to both his era – this is a wonderful cultural history of Houston and New York in the latter half of the 20th century – and to his influences, which ranged from Barthelme's childhood copy of the Baltimore Catechism, which taught him that literature was not always blocks of prose, to Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot demonstrated to him how "philosophy could become drama, almost directly, without the interference of plot, setting, and so on," according to Daugherty.

Daugherty outlines Barthelme's connoisseurship of city life, especially his fondness for long walks where "something ridiculous was bound to happen," as well as his dedication to women (he was married four times and had two daughters) and drink (Teacher's Scotch). He also deftly points out where the prose reflects the personal, connecting Barthelme's improvisational writing style to his hobby of jazz drumming, and the frequently dastardly father figures in the fiction to Barthelme's lifelong rebellion against his powerful father.

What one comes away with is a portrait of a thoroughly modern man of letters, one whose imagination was shaped by his environs and reading.

Perhaps the one important aspect that's missing from the book is proof that Barthelme was, in addition to being a great avant-garde writer, a great Texas writer. How so? Consider this abstract from The New Yorker of his story, "Porcupines at the University," one of his most accessible, published in April 1970.

"A herd of porcupines want to enroll at a university, or so thinks the Dean when he sees them approaching. The Dean doesn't want them because there are no facilities for four or five thousand porcupines. The porcupine wrangler, Griswold, wanted to drive the porcupines to the great porcupine canneries of the East, & make a lot of money. He also hoped to be a singer on the Ed Sullivan show and then at a Las Vegas night club. As they near the university, the herd is threatened by the Dean, who is ready to repel them with a Gatling gun. A deal is made and the herd is taken to New York. In the last scene the citizens in their cars are watching the porcupine herd on the Cross-Bronx Expressway."

The story is a hilarious satirical concoction, one that recasts the work of classic Texas writers, especially J. Frank Dobie, and his contemporaries, John Williams among them, as a Looney Tunes cartoon. (It's fun to imagine what he'd do with Cormac McCarthy's work.)

By calling his biography Hiding Man Daugherty is alluding to the fact that much of the workings of Barthelme's mind seems unknowable. So, his job as a biographer is, ultimately, to try and use the life as a skeleton key to the work, which he does admirably well. Still, writers will tell you that biographies are irrelevant without having read their original works. So find a copy of Sixty Stories or The Dead Father and start there. Then, once thoroughly enchanted, turn to Daugherty for guidance.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

Hiding Man

A Biography of Donald Barthelme

Tracy Daugherty

(St. Martin's Press, $35)

Book Review: 'Germania' gets the history right, but misses on the made-up stuff

Sunday, February 8, 2009

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

For three weeks following the death of Adolf Hitler, Allied-occupied Germany was left under political control of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the Nazi navy.

Dubbed the Flensburg Reich, for the northern German city where the administration was located, the short-lived government sought at first to persuade the Allies to team with the Germans to repel marauding Russians, and then, once evidence of the Holocaust became widespread, to show mercy.

Dallasite Brendan McNally uses this overlooked but fascinating episode of history as the basis for his debut novel, Germania – much of it written at the Starbucks on Lower Greenville. Germania is the name Hitler gave to the capital of his dreamt-of 1,000-year empire, a place of "salmon skies and buildings, of civic spaces, and a city that would be a thousand years of glory, a light upon nations."

Those words are spoken in the novel by Nazi architect Albert Speer. He, along with SS chief Heinrich Himmler, are the two key characters in the book. It shifts between the two men, first Speer as he tries to save what remains of German industry and Himmler as he dreams of becoming "King of Europe" while trying to negotiate a separate peace with Eisenhower, and later as they plot their escapes.

All the while the fates of the two men are caught up with those of an invented quartet of Jewish vaudeville performers called The Flying Magical Loerber Brothers. We meet them – Ziggy, Franzi, Manni and Sebastian – as the novel opens, performing acrobatic and magic tricks on a pre-war stage (and off-stage, killing Nazis), and again later, as each has a role to play in history: Manni as an assassin who cozies up to Speer, Ziggy as a Nazi U-boat captain loyal to Dönitz and the Navy, Sebastian as an operative with The Blood of Israel, and Franzi, a gay double-agent, working with both the Russians and the British, who becomes Himmler's masseuse and spiritual adviser.

Each Loerber Brother is also endowed with a psionic ability – Manni has the ability of mind control, Sebastian controls people's dreams, Ziggy is a telepath – which have, presumably, helped them survive as Jews in plain sight.

Unfortunately, this marriage of history and magic realism is awkward at best. McNally gets the history part right – the plot and characters as drawn from the record are, for the most part, wholly convincing – it's the made-up stuff that proves problematic. The brothers are too indistinct as individuals, particularly in scenes where more than one are present; the Nazis are the strongest presence, and history itself has already given us more than enough of these men.

Germania has antecedents in literature, most notably Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum and Michel Tournier's 1970 novel The Ogre, both of which offer magic realist takes on the Third Reich. But these are complex novels where moral ambiguity is threaded through the narrative, provocative enough to be polarizing.

McNally's novel isn't as lofty – Germania is intended more as entertainment than a philosophical or psychological study – and this is the problem. The topic with which he's dealing – the German Jews' relationship to the Holocaust and Nazis – may simply be far too real to ever be rendered as fanciful.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.


Brendan McNally

(Simon & Schuster, $26)

Friday, February 06, 2009

Jerusalem Book Fair on Track

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 2/2/2009

After the recent fighting in Gaza, Americans planning to travel to the biennial Jerusalem Book Fair, taking place February 15–20, might be reconsidering their plans. The peace seems fragile, but fair director Yoel Mako said all events remain in place. “People need not worry,” said Mako. “I'm quite sure everything will be quite nice by the time of the fair. I would say very openly that even when there is fighting taking place in Gaza, life in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv is quite normal.”

He said the fighting has had “no effect whatsoever” on plans for the fair. “We have 30 writers coming from all over the world. All of the cultural programs are proceeding and there have been no cancellations.” Among those expected from the U.S. are some 50 people from the trade community, including those who participate in the fair's editorial and agent fellowship programs. In all, some 80,000 members of the public are also expected, primarily to shop for books. “The strength of the fair is the cultural programs and activities that connect international and Israeli writers,” said Mako. “Amos Oz, for example, is launching his new book. I'm quite sure that during the fair there will be discussion about the affairs of the region. In fact, we encourage it.”

This year the fair's top honor, the Jerusalem Prize, will be awarded to Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. The prize is given to an author “for literary achievements in the field of freedom of the individual in society.”

Monday, February 02, 2009

Bryan Burrough's 'The Big Rich': gossipy, engrossing

'Barbarians at the Gate' author's latest book examines the rise and fall of the great Texas oil men

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Who do Texans have to thank for the Super Bowl, the rise of political conservatism, and our reputation as rootin'-tootin', Cadillac drivin', larger-than-life caricatures?

Easy answer: H. L. Hunt, Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, aka "The Big Four." These men are "quickly passing from headlines into history," laments Temple native Bryan Burrough, author of "The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes." "But they did more to cement the public perception of Texas and Texans than anything in our history."

Burrough knows a good story when he hears one: A special correspondent for Vanity Fair, he began his career with The Wall Street Journal in Houston and Dallas, and has authored or co-authored five books, including the blockbuster "Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco," which is now in its 22nd edition. Reached by phone at his home in New Jersey, it's immediately clear Burrough hasn't gone native. He speaks with a distinct Texas drawl and immediately pours on the charm. "As soon as my last child is off to college, I'm moving to Austin," he says, "It's the best city in America." He also points out that his wife is a former Statesman editor.

Despite Burrough's Texas roots, he didn't come up with the idea for "The Big Rich." In 2004, he'd just published "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34," (which, incidentally, will be released this summer as a movie starring Johnny Depp), and his editor suggested his next book cover Texas oil.

"I knew immediately how to do it. It had to be about the four families," says Burrough. "These men were the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gateses of their day. But at the same time, they were the original Beverly Hillbillies."

He continues, "Not one of these men graduated from college. They were the first shirtsleeve millionaires."

Though Burrough found no proof that "The Beverly Hillbillies" was based on any of the Texas oilmen, there was one show that was - "Dallas," which was loosely inspired by the querulous clan of H.L. Hunt.

Hunt, who hailed from Missouri, transformed himself from "a gentleman planter into a professional gambler and then, finally, at the age of thirty-five, into a successful oilman," writes Burrough. The year was 1924, when Hunt controlled about $7 million worth of oil. By the early 1950s he was a billionaire and considered, with the possible exception of Sid Richardson, the richest man in America.

In Burrough's depiction, Hunt is far more complicated than you might expect: A "strange man, a loner who lived deep inside his own peculiar mind, a self-educated thinker who was convinced - absolutely convinced - that he was possessed of talents that bordered on the superhuman." He was also a covert bigamist, with three families, who became an influential backer of political conservatives and such a vocal critic of John F. Kennedy that he was suspected of orchestrating the president's assassination. (One of his sons, Lamar, dreamed up the Super Bowl. After seeing his daughter playing with a Super Ball, he thought it would be a good name for the first championship game in 1967 between the recently merged NFL and upstart AFL, which he helped to establish.)

Hunt was not alone in willingness to leverage wealth for political clout. Burrough recalls how, in the 1950s, Clint Murchison used his "personal retreat" - the Hotel Del Charro in La Jolla, Calif. - to curry favor with Joe McCarthy, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, who liked it so much, he returned every summer from 1952 until his death in 1972.

"The oilmen's legacy is the type of Texas conservative that has been so successful in Washington in recent years," Burrough says. "George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey ? I don't know how many of them would have existed today were it not for the money and influence of the oilmen back in the '40s and '50s."

Of course, with Barack Obama now in the Oval Office, things are starting to look different.

"Sure, you still have people like T. Boone Pickens who can get himself heard, " says Burrough, "but that only means he has the money to buy ads, not real influence."

Diminishing influence

Aside from politics, the other significant legacy of the oilmen is one of conspicuous consumption, something best embodied by the story of the Shamrock Hotel, Burrough's personal favorite tale in a book full of decadent tales.

"I was shocked there wasn't more written about it already," said Burrough. "It really deserves its own book."

The Shamrock Hotel was the dream of oilman Glenn McCarthy, a mustachioed, bourbon-swilling, fist-fighting Houstonian who got his start running gas stations, struck oil, and palled around with Howard Hughes and John Wayne. He served as the model for Jett Rink, the oilman in Edna Ferber's 1952 novel "Giant," later played by James Dean in the 1956 movie of the same name.

In the late 1940s, McCarthy embarked on his dream project, a hotel so lavish he hoped it would turn Houston into an A-list destination, and as a consequence make him "The King of Texas."

The Shamrock Hotel (the name was chosen through a newspaper contest) had 1,100 rooms, a 10,919-square-foot dining room, parking for 5,000 cars, the world's largest pool and a neon sign that could be seen from miles away. It cost $18 million, and the opening party, held on St. Patrick's Day, 1949, cost another $1.5 million. That event, recounted in detail by Burrough, was a star-studded affair; McCarthy chartered a train to bring in movie stars - Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner and Edgar Bergen among them - from California. It was probably worthy of its place on the pantheon of great parties next to Truman Capote's "Black and White Ball."

Of course, like the power and influence of Texas oil itself, the party didn't last. Overextended, within five years McCarthy lost the Shamrock to his investors. Later converted into a Hilton, it remained open, much diminished, until June 1, 1987, when the first wrecking balls smashed into its façade.

"If I had to pick a date," says Burrough, "that would be when the era of the Big Rich came to its end"

Tellingly, what replaced the Shamrock was a parking lot for the burgeoning Houston Medical Center, which has become almost as synonymous with the city as oil. Of course, much of the Center's funding came from another of the Big Four, Roy Cullen.

Though the influence of Texas "oilionaires" might not be what it used to be, it's still an integral part of our economy and history, one Burrough believes is central to any Texan's identity.

"Sure, as a political and cultural animal, Texas never quite fulfilled its potential," says Burrough. "But people forget that when these people burst onto the national stage in 1950, Americans thought of millionaires as Vanderbilts and Astors, guys in distant mansions. Here, for the first time, were a bunch of ordinary Joes who came into an astonishing amount of money. We're so used to it now, with the Internet millionaires, but then it was a new thing. In fact, there were so many Texas millionaires and billionaires it began the whole process of those wealthiest Americans lists.

Adds Burrough, "Anyone who calls themselves a Texan has an obligation to know and remember them."