Since McSweeney's continues to outdo itself every issue with jaw-dropping design and packaging, it's easy at times to overlook the content within its covers. Their latest issue, #24, makes it an even slippier challenge: It's a two-sided book with a panoramic, extended cover. Imagine two books side by side on a shelf, with one turned backward, pages facing out. If their two touching covers were fused together and wrapped in an evocative storybook-inspired drawing by Rachell Sumpter, it would look something like the new issue of McSweeney's.
But to shelf the latest issue after turning it over in your hands a few times would be to miss the beginning of something great: the resurgence of interest in the late, great Donald Barthelme. One half of the new McSweeney's consists entirely of a tribute to the postmodern master of short fiction, with recollections by friends, colleagues, and admirers such as George Saunders, Ann Beattie, Robert Coover, and Lawrence Weschler. These remembrances are accompanied by two previously uncollected Barthelme stories, including a deliriously precise and droll divorce tale from 1973, "The Bed."
Barthelme fell out of fashion with the rise of Raymond Carver-influenced realism in the '80s, and as guest editor Justin Taylor notes here, his legacy "is in a kind of shambles"—something Taylor and McSweeney's hope to remedy. Barthelme embodied two enviable traits that rarely overlap: He was a relentless intellectual, and he was devastatingly funny. With stories like "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Toby" and "Me and Miss Mandible," Barthelme seemed to reinvent and perfect the short story genre time and time again (while influencing countless future writers such as Saunders, Steve Martin, and Dave Eggers).
In the personal reminisces collected here, Barthelme emerges as a fiercely likeable man (his alcoholism and mean streak seem generally forgiven). As writer David Gates put it, "I just wanted to be that smart, that cool, and to carry myself with that ease and authority." And after reading the McSweeney's tribute, so did I. But what I wanted even more was to re-experience what George Saunders called the "pleasure bursts" of Barthelme's fiction, and to smartly and drolly join the great Barthelme revival of '07.