Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Critic Marvin Mudrick has called Barthelme a “comedian turned thinker,” and never is Barthelme’s cutting humor more sharply focused than when aimed at the weight of intellectual baggage people carry around with them. Consider this exchange:“What do you have strong opinions about?” Miss Arbor asked. . . . “I believe,” Peterson said, “that the learning ability of mice can be lowered or increased by regulating the amount of serotonin in the brain. I believe that schizophrenics have a high incidence of unusual fingerprints, including lines that make almost complete circles. I believe that the dreamer watches his dream in sleep, by moving his eyes.” “That’s very interesting!” Miss Arbor cried. “It’s all in the World Almanac,” Peterson replied.

On the more serious side, Barthelme jams into this story all the trash modern life has to offer, from the raw materials of Peterson’s sculptures to the bizarre feats of athletic prowess exhibited by the contestants on Who Am I? In a world in which presidents show up on one’s doorstep bent on destruction and men torture animals in the name of art, where can hope possibly hide?

Barthelme, one the twentieth century’s finest experimental writers, weaves humor, satire, and symbolism together into a verbal collage in “A Shower of Gold.” He arranges objects, persons, and events in a surreal fashion reminiscent of the flexible clocks and disembodied eyes draped about the barren landscape of a Salvador Dali painting. A gamesman with language, Barthelme believes that words are never accurate mirrors to reflect experience. However, as distorting as they may be of life’s true image, he also believes that words are the only tools at hand to reveal and repulse the cultural and personal annihilation threatened by the banality of modern technology, communication, and social order. Therein lies the poignancy of Peterson’s impassioned plea to his television audience and of Barthelme’s almost editorial closing comment: “Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.”