“A Shower of Gold,” one of the works from Barthelme’s first collection of short stories, is a meditation on themes developed most fully by the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose influence on American thought was especially strong in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The story has more of a plot than do many of Barthelme’s works, and it has a somewhat recognizable situation; its departures from reality are in the twists of situation and in the episodic interruptions by seemingly unconnected characters and plot developments.
The protagonist, a struggling New York artist named Peterson, is trying to get on a television program called Who Am I? The only qualification necessary is that he have strong opinions about some subject—a criticism on Barthelme’s part of the premium that contemporary society placed on novelty over depth, and on the emphasis on the individual implied by making the fact of belief so important. Peterson gets on the show by citing surprising factual data as his opinion, and he is praised by the woman running the program, Miss Arbor, to the extent that he mouths the platitudes of Sartrean philosophy.
Miss Arbor eagerly asks Peterson if he is alienated, absurd, and extraneous: all the depressing things that Sartre held to define humankind’s position in the universe. Nothing is so negative or weighty, Barthelme is saying, that it cannot be turned into glossy ad hype. Peterson resists Miss Arbor’s...
(The entire section is 437 words.)