more valiant huffing on Barthelme’s behalf


Donald Barthelme was the Stephen Sondheim of haute fiction—a dexterous assembler of witty, mordant, intricate devices that, once exploded, exposed the sawdust and stuffing of traditional forms. His stories weren’t finely rendered portrait studies in human behavior or autobiographical reveries à la Johns Updike and Cheever, but a row of boutiques showcasing his latest pranks, confections, gadgets, and Max Ernst/Monty Python–ish collages. Like Sondheim’s biting rhymes and contrapuntal duets, Barthelme’s parlor tricks and satiric ploys were accused early on of being cerebral, preeningly clever, hermetically sealed, and lacking in “heart”of supplying the clattering sound track to the cocktail party of the damned. Yet, like Sondheim, Barthelme was no simple Dr. Sardonicus, licensed cynic. His radiograms from the observation deck of his bemused detachment evidently touched depths and won converts, otherwise his work wouldn’t have inspired so many salvage operations intended to keep his name alive and his enterprise afloat. Mere smarty show-offs don’t garner this kind of affection from a younger breed of astronauts. Just as there always seems to be a Sondheim musical poised for Broadway revival (Company in 2006, Sunday in the Park with George right now), Barthelme’s bundle of greatest hits and obscure outtakes has been parceled out in a series of reprintings and repackagings since his death in 1989. He’s always poised on the verge of being majorly rediscovered without ever quite making it over the crest, despite the valiant huffing done on his behalf.

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