(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Desperate for cash, Peterson, a self-declared minor artist whose welded sculptures are not selling, signs on as a contestant for the television game show Who Am I? The title of the program is apt, for its producers purport to entertain their audience with probes into the futility, alienation, anonymity, and despair of modern life. Interviewing with Miss Arbor to become a Who Am I? contestant, Peterson counters her dedication to absurdity with his own doubts that absurdity even exists. When Miss Arbor asks if he encounters his own existence as gratuitous, he replies that he has an enlarged liver. This exchange confirms Peterson’s dilemma: In Miss Arbor’s words, Peterson may not be interested in absurdity, but absurdity is interested in Peterson.

As if in punishment for his disbelief, absurd things begin to happen. Peterson visits the gallery where he has consigned his sculptures for sale. His dealer, Jean-Claude, tries to convince him that his works would sell better if they were cut into smaller pieces. Peterson refuses, and the source of his swollen liver is identified as the rage and hatred he feels when he sees that not one of his works is displayed.

Peterson returns to his loft, drinks beer (apparently a second source of his liver complaint), and ponders money and the President. He is running out of money to buy beer for himself and milk for his kitten. Even worse, he feels he may be letting his buddy, the President, down by selling himself to television.

He begins to weld a new sculpture titled Season’s Greetings from three old auto radiators and a discarded telephone switchboard. Suddenly, the door bursts open and the President rushes in, swinging a sixteen-pound...

(The entire section is 711 words.)