In a 1981 Paris Review interview, Donald Barthelme averred that his life’s story “would not sustain a person’s attention for a moment.” Perhaps he intended to excuse the absence of obviously biographical material in his work. Barthelme was, after all, famous for writing surrealistic stories about balloons expanding mysteriously over Manhattan, or the romantic regrets of the Phantom of the Opera, or the sadness engendered by advanced capitalism.
In a story titled “The Rise of Capitalism” (1972), Barthelme wrote: “I thought I had understood capitalism, but what I had done was assume an attitude-melancholy sadness-toward it. This attitude is not correct.”
Even a close reading of his fiction offers no biographical trace of why Barthelme might have assumed that attitude, or why-or if-he changed his mind.
Likewise, there’s nothing in Barthelme’s bio about mysterious balloons or the Phantom of the Opera (though we learn that he rarely had much money). The startling power of Barthelme’s imagination was such that he seemed to have invented his stories without any reference to ordinary life.
Did he? In the same interview, Barthelme seems to be of two minds. He says, “There’s not a strong autobiographical strain in my fiction. A few bits of fact here and there … which illuminate … not very much.” In another exchange (which Barthelme edited out before the interview was published), he says, “I will never write an autobiography, or possibly I’ve already done so, in the stories.”
Which is it?
His biographer and former student, novelist Tracy Daugherty, thinks it’s the latter. Daugherty has dug deeply into the work and the life, and returned from his excavations with bright nuggets of insight into just how precisely Barthelme’s life does illuminate his art.
Reading Hiding Man, you can see why Barthelme was so dismissive about the prospect of readerly interest in his life story. It is, in many ways, predictable, and Barthelme the writing teacher probably would have told students to edit out what pass for salacious bits had these same tales had been presented as workshop fiction. (I was a student of Barthelme’s and once took a workshop with Daugherty. I remember Barthelme telling me I had to make my work “more interesting”-an imprecise command that has vaguely haunted me for 20-plus years.) By “salacious” I’m referring to the writer’s four marriages and various affairs. Daugherty makes the generous and wise choice to linger no longer than necessary over these episodes, and I imagine he left a few out.
Predictability aside, there remains an outsized, genuinely inexplicable side to Barthelme’s biography: How did rude, money-grubbing Houston of the 1940s and ’50s produce perhaps the most flat-out sophisticated-even Frenchified-fiction writer in the history of American letters? If you think I’m exaggerating, read Barthelme’s 1964 story “The Indian Uprising,” about (among many other things) a Comanche attack on Manhattan. Then read Daugherty’s convincing explication, which shows how the story, a signature piece, functioned not only as a comment on the Vietnam War, but also as a look back at the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and a wide swath of French history.
Daugherty shows that Barthelme was not merely seeking to dazzle his New Yorker readers with continental references. He was using French history to illuminate the American moment, with its unpopular war, its assassination aftermath, its then-bloody civil rights movement, and, not least important, its urban renewal projects, which were wiping out urban villages like the writer’s adopted bohemia of Greenwich Village across the nation. Daugherty writes that “The Indian Uprising” describes “America as a perfected manifestation of Haussmann’s ‘disemboweling’ of Paris.” (He’s referring to Baron Haussmann’s elegant but brutal 1850s “redesign” of Paris, undertaken largely in reaction to the political uprisings of 1848.)
While Barthelme was a hyper-refined aesthete, he wasn’t one to avert his eyes from the vulgarity of his hometown. Nor was he one to trash Houston once he escaped to New York. Barthelme was a hard-drinking, cowboy-boot-wearing Marlboro Man kind of aesthete, a sort of Jackson Pollock with a pen. It was ironic that he arrived in New York with the hard-living Abstract Expressionists in retreat and Warholian dandies taking their place. He must’ve made quite an impression.
Readers who share my eagerness to explore the mysteries of underdescribed Houston will find Daugherty’s description of Barthelme’s early years riveting. Daugherty begins the story with a kind of prelude on the character and architectural career of the writer’s father, Donald Barthelme Sr. The older Don was a regionally important modernist whose apparently pitiless demands on his eldest son shaped the young man to a striking degree.
From his father, young Barthelme learned to value “the new” above all else, whether in architecture, art or writing. (In 1960 Barthelme wrote an essay in this magazine about the difficulty of finding “the new” in Houston.)
Daugherty’s eureka moment, the crux to which he can legitimately point and say here is Donald Barthelme’s origin story, arrives when Barthelme has just graduated from high school and started classes at the University of Houston, back when its Cougar High nickname was still deserved. No doubt hoping to deepen his -influence on his son, Barthelme Sr. gave his son a copy of Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism, an artistic manifesto that calls on writers, in Daugherty’s words, “not to represent the world as it is, but to engender startling new revelations.”
This directive evidently struck the novice writer with the force of revelation. In “Not Knowing,” his only essay on the philosophy behind his fiction, published in 1982, Barthelme returned to Raymond’s ideas, quoting him on the Imagist poet Stephen Mallarme: “The poet’s style is a ‘whisper … close to silence.’”
Would any other American fiction writer claim Mallarme as a primary influence? None that I know of.
While the older Barthelme built a world that his son never completely left (though he added a major wing), he at times seemed intent on breaking the young man’s spirit. When Barthelme was ready to move to New York and begin his adventure, his father wished him Godspeed with these words: “You must be prepared to fail.”
In one of the book’s most painful Ârevelations, at least to those inclined to see Barthelme as a heroic figure, Daugherty shows Barthelme, on one of his frequent trips home, getting drunk and vomiting on his father’s drafting table. You don’t get much more blatant-or sad-than that.
Barthelme found his glory in New York. That part of the story is the least surprising part of his biography and, for this Houston reader, the least compelling.
So let me linger over the Houston chapters, since Barthelme himself claims to have arrived in New York in 1962 (at age 24) with his “sensibility … pretty well put together.” He’d had a brief but spectacular early run in Houston before returning in the early 1980s to put the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program on the map. If Barthelme was a star in New York, in Houston he was a comet.
His second wife, Helen, who died in 1992, then worked at the university. Barthelme was already writing fiction, but he was also looking for a part-time job. He somehow got himself named editor of an alumni newsletter-Barthelme had a genius for navigating university bureaucracies-that he renamed Forum and turned into “one of the nation’s most serious and Âinnovative intellectual journals.” Over the objections of his conservative board, Barthelme published early Walker Percy, early William Gass, gay-themed short fiction, Marshall McLuhan (the text of the speech in which McLuhan introduced the phrase “the medium is the message,” no less), Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean-Paul Sartre.
When the board finally pulled the plug, Barthelme took a part-time job at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum. There he lured the musical and theatrical avant-garde from New York and curated an exhibition whose title has reverberated through the years: “The Ugly Show.”
It’s doubtful that Barthelme ever had a day job more satisfying than those in Houston. By the time he was 24, though, he had outgrown the city. In New York he was more or less among his own kind, though Daugherty shows that Barthelme, perhaps because of the pain inflicted by his father, always maintained a wall of reserve. He accomplished this physically by becoming an alcoholic. He was apparently at least “a l ittle drunk” every day for the rest of his life. He said he feared he would lose his creativity if he stopped drinking.
You can’t write intimately about Barthelme without commenting on that wall. His UH colleague Phillip Lopate has noted an aura of immense sadness around the man. Barthelme bore the sadness with such dignity that the aura somehow came across as noble.
I saw this too, in my more limited dealings. In class Barthelme was always “on.” He was brilliant, terrifyingly witty and engaged with us wannabes. The few times I bumped into him at a bookstore or grocery produced moments of tense awkwardness that remain vivid: a measured “hello” followed by all the silence I could stand.
I took his reaction personally until Daugherty asked me what I thought of the great man. It was clear that Barthelme and Daugherty were fairly close; they sat together at readings, and in class Barthelme was pleased with a novel Daugherty was finishing, Desire Provoked. When I described the Âdiscomfort of my impromptu Â
encounters with Barthelme, I was surprised to hear Daugherty say something along the lines of, “That’s Don. That’s how he is with everybody.” It didn’t occur to me that Barthelme might have been drunk, and eventually the worst of the awkwardness passed.
Still, quite a few people managed to penetrate his defenses, including Daugherty, who has pulled off a tricky task: He has taken on his mentor, warts and all, but has avoided the trap that snares so many biographers, who seem to learn to hate their subjects the more they get to know them.
The Barthelme of this biography is deeply flawed, but Daugherty keeps the flaws in perspective. He presents Barthelme as a man of contradictions rather than a simple prick. He was a drunk, but his work is startlingly lucid (“shimmering” is the word a New York Times reviewer applied to his writing). He was a sexual adventurer, but also a devoted family man and father. He could be cold, but perhaps that was because his feelings ran so deep.
Daugherty titled his book Hiding Man, after an early Barthelme story, for good reason-to some extent, Barthelme surely did hide behind surrealistic technique. But he sometimes peeped out through his startling literary juxtapositions to show his true face, with its deeply ironic smile. Daugherty is there waiting, his own writerly skill allowing Barthelme to emerge as a soulful, wounded giant.
The book ends with an account of Barthelme’s trip to Oregon State University, where Daugherty teaches, a few months before Barthelme’s death of cancer, in 1989, at 58. Feeling his mortality and fearing his literary experiments might have been a waste of life and talent, Barthelme nonetheless puts on a brave show, dazzling the students and drinking with the faculty. At the end of the visit he asks Daugherty, “Did I do OK for you?”
Maybe, as Daugherty muses, Barthelme was deliberately quoting from his own novel, The Dead Father. “I recalled the end. Just before he’s covered in his grave, the dead father, speaking of … the life he has lived, asks his son … ‘Did I do it well?’”
When Daugherty bids adieu and his mentor disappears in a taxi into an Oregon blizzard, the reader is caught up in a snowstorm of references and Âassociations of Daugherty’s careful making. The effect is deeply moving, and one can imagine Barthelme at the storm’s center, surprised to see that, like his stories, he lives on.
Houston’s David Theis is the author of the novel Rio Ganges.
The online version of this article was amended May 29, 2009, to correct an erroneous description of The Dead Father as Donald Barthelme’s last novel.