(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Proteus, the Greek god, would give anyone who could catch him directions on how to reach a desired destination. But Proteus did not like to answer questions, and he had the unique ability to change himself into fire, water, tiny sea-creatures, or giant monsters—whatever he chose to be. His questioner was usually frustrated, sure that valuable knowledge and understanding of mysteries beyond his grasp were there before him, tantalizingly out of reach.

Donald Barthelme, in this collection of twenty-one short stories, some of them no more than a few thousand words long, has something of the quality of Proteus. He has a daring imagination; he may know much more than he is telling; and he is maddeningly elusive.

If imagination and verbal facility are considered alone, Barthelme is surely one of our best writers. Unlike most authors, though, his work seems to come not from observation of real life but almost entirely from his own wildly inventive imagination, because hardly anything in it has any resemblance to “fact.” Consider, for example, “Our Friend Colby,” which begins: “Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him.” The rest of the story, building from the absurd premise, is rigorously logical in the same way that Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is logical and yet insane. Colby’s musical preference for the occasion is regretfully refused; he wants Ives’s Fourth Symphony, obviously a delaying tactic because it would take weeks of rehearsals. Besides, the large orchestra and chorus required would put the hanging committee well over their budget. Other considerations include the possibility of importing a hangman from South America, since there are so few in this country; the relative merits of using a gibbet and scaffold or a tree, in a bucolic setting; and whether or not to use wire instead of rope (wire is rejected, much to Colby’s relief, because it might scar the oak branch they have decided to use, and is thus environmentally unacceptable). Ingenious Tomás, the architect, hits upon a method of hanging Colby that will do away with both the potentially unreliable hangman and the alternative, having Colby jump off a chair, which would be “tacky.” He will instead be placed atop a ten-foot rubber ball, painted green to harmonize with the landscape, and the ball will simply be rolled out from under him. Everything goes splendidly: “It didn’t rain, the event was well attended, and we didn’t run out of Scotch, or anything.” We never do find out what Colby’s offense was.

Several conclusions may be drawn from a consideration of this story. First, Barthelme is one of the few writers for whose plots summaries are funny. Second, his method depends upon a juxtaposition of the possible and the impossible, which places his work in the fictional subgenre of fantasy; third, he is intrigued by death and attitudes toward it; fourth, he deliberately short-circuits attempts at finding clear central meanings to his stories; and fifth, the reader may be amazed or amused by Barthelme, but he is seldom moved: the appeal of his work is to the mind, not the heart.

Concerning the matter of plot, it may be noted that relatively few of the stories have so clear, though crazy, a plotline as “Colby.” Most of them are vignettes that can be described in one sentence. “Our Work and Why We Do It” describes the routine in a print shop; “The Wound” is about a torero who watches himself in slow motion TV re-runs being gored in the heel as he flees from a bull; “The School” is narrated by a teacher who wonders why everything connected with the school dies, including gerbils, goldfish, children, and parents; in “I Bought a Little City” the narrator buys Galveston, Texas, and shoots six thousand dogs; “Porcupines at the University” describes the last great porcupine drive to New York. These are only a few examples of an incredibly varied collection of whimsies. Barthelme is the kind of writer who can take an idea—say, for example, where do all of the tons of fat that people lose every year go?—and weave it into a narrative. But except for one or two pieces, there are no people in these stories, only figures. It is when Barthelme deals with people, as in “110 West Sixty-first Street,” about a couple whose son has died, that he is least satisfactory; the relatively straightforward realism of the grief which Eugenie and Paul are said to feel turns into satire at the end—Paul has been promoted from dealing with bus company bankruptcies to railway company bankruptcies, and now has the Cincinnati and West Virginia line (“the whole thing”) for his very own. The couple then go to bed and masturbate. John Cheever or John Updike could take these characters and make them live, but in Barthelme they are merely cartoon figures, and repulsive ones at that.

Barthelme’s true metier is allegory, in which he can freely associate ideas and emotions without having to show directly how they influence real people. “The Great Hug” is a totally successful and delightful allegory, with echoes of E. E. Cummings and James Thurber; it describes the conflict of illusion and reality in the form of the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady. The Balloon Man sells balloons only to adults; children are not eligible....

(The entire section is 2216 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Hudson Review. XXX, Summer, 1977, p. 304.

New Statesman. XCIV, October 28, 1977, p. 591.

Observer. November 20, 1977, p. 29.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, October 24, 1977, p. 75.