12:00 AM CST on Sunday, February 8, 2009
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.
A Biography of Donald Barthelme
(St. Martin's Press, $35)