KLRU-TV, Austin PBS, creates innovative television that inspires and educates. KLRU-produced programs that air statewide on Texas PBS stations include Central Texas Gardener, Texas Monthly Talks and The Biscuit Brothers. Check your local listings. EVIEW 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 thought I had understood capitalism, but what I had done was assume an attitudemelancholy sadnesstoward 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 whyor ifhe changed his mind. Likewise, there’s nothing in Barthelme’s bio about mysterious balloons or the Phantom of the Opera \(though we learn 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 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 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 194os and ‘5os produce perhaps the most flat-out sophisticatedeven Frenchifiedfiction writer in the history Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme By Tracy Daugherty St. Martin’s Press 592 pages, $35 of American letters? If you think I’m exaggerating, read Barthelme’s 1964 story “The Indian Uprising,” about \(among on Manhattan. Then read Daugherty’s convincing explication, which shows how the story, a signature piece, functioned The Donald BY DAVID THEIS MAY 29, 2009 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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