by Donald Barthelme
(Little Brown & Co., 1964)
In his first collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari Donald Barthelme writes, "The aim of literatureÉ is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart." Barthelme seems to have taken his own words to heart. It's been over 15 years since his death at age 58 of cancer, but his writing still feels wilder and more innovative than just about anything out there. Barthelme worked with fragments and collage, turning everything around us into a grotesque portrait of salvaged pieces. Any word or phrase from any context can find its way into a Barthelme story, and whether it's an ad slogan or random facts about engine motors, its placement carries poignancy.
But gorgeous lines like, "A tissue of truths he thought, delicate as the negotiations leading to the surrender," show that Barthelme never relied on bizarre juxtapositions to achieve poignancy; rather, the technique was complimentary to an incredible gift for literary prose. In "Me and Miss Mandible" a, yes, 35-year-old sixth grader says, "Everything is promised my classmates and I, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking." In "Margins" Barthelme writes, "...the two men slapped each other sharply in the face with the back of the hand, that beautiful part where the knuckles grow."
As part of his salvaging and reusing of every day items, Barthelme liked to play with pop culture stories, as he did in "The Joker's Greatest Triumph." In it, Batman considers the Joker's "extraordinary contradictions": "distant and brimming with friendly impulses, an inveterate liar and astonishingly strict with petty cash..." When his companion compliments the thoughtful analysis, Batman writes, "I was paraphrasing what Mark Schorer said about Sinclair Lewis."
Barthelme wrote a few novels as well, among them Snow White and The Dead Father, but he is best known for his short stories. His stories, composed of fragments, work best as fragments themselves. Strange little creatures covered in fur, small enough you can hold them in your arms, every one there to break your heart. M. WILLIAM HELFRICH