The Write Brothers

A new book celebrates the life of hip literary genius Donald Barthelme— and, by extension, his talented siblings.

August 2001By Comments

In Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound (Texas A&M University Press), Helen Moore Barthelme, the writer’s second wife, recalls her life with the man she considered a “literary genius.” Perhaps he was. He certainly thought so, and in the sixties he had a huge impact on the American literary scene. John Barth calls him the “thinking man’s minimalist.” Another admirer, Thomas Pynchon, refers to Barthelme’s world as “Barthelmismo.” Barthelme possessed an imperial assurance about his writing. When an editor at The New Yorker said ten lines needed to be cut from a story that used the word “butter” 132 times, Barthelme replied that “the word butter must appear 132 times, you can cut out any other butter after that.” The story, “Eugénie Grandet,” was collected in Sixty Stories, Barthelme’s own selection of his best. Looking at it today, it’s hard to see how the paragraph consisting entirely of the word “butter” repeated 86 times makes much difference at all.The jury is still out on the magnitude of Barthelme’s accomplishment. The downside of his brand of surrealism or metafiction or postmodernism or whatever you choose to call it is that it is often tied to ephemeral pop culture references, and what can seem hip and cool in one decade can later seem precious and irrelevant. The more experimental stories, for example, were print equivalents of collage—fragmented combinations of photographs, cartoons, bold headlines, quotations, and often the merest hint of a narrative line, or none at all. The more conventional stories, such as the hilarious “The School,” a dead-on satire of correct thinking by a trendy teacher, seem to hold up better today.

Still, there are many pleasures to be found in such avant-garde exercises as “Brain Damage,” in which, for instance, an out-of-nowhere anthropological riff on a people called the Wapituil produces very funny moments. The Wapituil “have everything that we have, but only one of each thing.” As a result, “they have one disease, mononucleosis” and “the sex life of a Wapituil consists of a single experience, which he thinks about for a long time.” Whether the with-it-ness of the culture-bound stories will last is an open question. For example, the annual MLA International Bibliography, the Dun and Bradstreet of academic approbation, listed 11 articles on Barthelme for 1997 and 1998 and 230 on Toni Morrison for the same period.

Reading Barthelme’s stories, one would deduce an education at a good East Coast school and an upbringing in a suitably fashionable Manhattan apartment. The facts could not be more different. Although born in Philadelphia in 1931, he grew up in the provinces, in barbaric Texas, in the thirties and forties. But here is another surprise for the stereotypically inclined. One of the side benefits of Helen Barthelme’s book is its portrait of how sophisticated Houston was in the fifties; the city boasted lively scenes in painting, music, and drama. Culture started at home, and it started early in the Barthelme family. For Barthelme’s fourteenth birthday, his father gave him a copy of Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism. Barthelme went to the University of Houston, not Princeton or Harvard or even Rice, and he read Waiting for Godot in Houston too, a work that gave him a perfect absurdist model for the kind of new fiction he wanted to write.

In Helen Barthelme’s re-creation of his life, her husband was always seeking—but never getting—his father’s approval. He rebelled early on, running off to Mexico when he was sixteen. After high school he played drums in a band against his father’s wishes. As an adult, he ended up arguing with Donald Senior over one thing or another at nearly every family get-together.

The father loomed large in his son’s consciousness, so omnipresent that one of Barthelme’s novels was called The Dead Father, in which he brooded, postmodernly, on everything from the father’s penis to the size of the son’s responsibility as inheritor of fatherness: “You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him.” Donald Senior, an architect of some local standing, helped design the rather grand Hall of State at Fair Park in Dallas, built for the Texas Centennial. Barthelme the son designed stories with graphic elements and bits of ornamentation. The mother, Helen Bechtold Barthelme, was equally brilliant in her own fashion. Everybody in the Barthelme family was brilliant, it seems. Recalls Helen Moore Barthelme: “Each Barthelme had a different kind of humor, but all were unique, and I have never known anyone else like them.”

Whatever market value Barthelme’s literary stock eventually levels out at, the sheer literary talent and output of the Barthelme family has never, I think, been sufficiently recognized. Perhaps only the James family—Henry, William, Henry Senior—surpasses them in this regard. Besides Donald’s career (eight short-story collections, four novels, a children’s book, an illustrated narrative, and an international reputation), the other four children—Joan, Peter, Frederick (Rick), and Steven—have had remarkable careers as well. Joan became the first female executive at Pennzoil in a male-dominated Houston corporate world. Peter, a successful advertising executive, has published three witty, hard-boiled crime novels set in Houston and the Gulf Coast. Frederick’s career is amazing. After a precocious beginning as a minimalist artist, he became one of the foremost exponents of minimalism in fiction, though his more recent work represents an exfoliation of experience that goes beyond the sometimes tiresome limitations of that genre. In twelve volumes of fiction, including several books of short stories and novels such as Bob the Gambler and The Brothers, he has become the premier chronicler of Mississippi Gulf Coast suburban culture. It may be that the Barthelme whose work will turn out to be the most important and lasting is Frederick. The youngest of the Barthelmes, Steven, has published a collection of short fiction and co-authored, with Frederick, the compelling memoir of their descent into gambling hell, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss.

Perhaps the key to Donald’s family romance resides in the book by his two younger brothers. Their description of their parents suggests a hard act to follow: “He and Mother made of the family and our early lives a lovely old-fashioned movie with snappy dialogue and surprising developments, high drama and low comedy, heroes and villains, wit and beauty and regret. Pretty much everything since then has been anticlimax.”

In his own life he tried to achieve perfection. That was all he expected of his marriage to Helen: perfection. They had to have the right house, the right furniture, the right books, the right everything. And all of this cost money, which Barthelme did not have—never would. He depended on Helen, whose advertising business was profitable, and, painfully, on his father. He wanted to live as an elite without paying the freight. Helen calls him “autocratic” rather than “arrogant.”

Perfectionists are rarely satisfied with the way things turn out in real life, and Barthelme certainly found imperfection everywhere he looked. He might have looked more closely at himself. Though he had jettisoned Catholicism (as did all the brothers; that was one vaccination that didn’t take), he spoke often to Helen of “this evil world.”

Ditching Helen the way he did was one of his less perfect acts. In 1962 he moved to New York, the locus of all his artistic desire, and while there, waiting for Helen to join him, he found he liked it without her. New York gave him access to movers and shakers like the artist Elaine de Kooning, the critic Dwight Macdonald, and many other luminaries in the arts who were thrilling to be around. The in crowd in New York drank a great deal, and Barthelme, in Helen’s words, began “drinking excessively.”

Eventually he and Helen decided to separate, and while he was in Denmark on a Guggenheim, he took up with a Scandinavian beauty named Birgit who suffered from a debilitating inherited disease and mental problems. When she became pregnant, Barthelme insisted upon divorcing Helen to keep the child from being illegitimate. Helen is reserved in her account of that particular bloodletting done from afar, but she does report that when his novel Snow White came out in 1967, she ripped out the dedication to Birgit.

In the early eighties Barthelme returned to Texas and assumed the mantle of éminence grise in creative writing at the University of Houston. His life was cut short in 1989 by cancer. After he was cremated, Frederick, in a gesture Donald would have appreciated, Helen says, poked around in the ashes in his fireplace, wondering aloud where Donald was. When the parents died in quick succession in the nineties, Frederick and Steven lost their inheritance in a frenzy of high-stakes games in the offshore casinos along the Mississippi coast. Such self-inflicted suffering seems to have deepened and extended their writing, but the most famous of the Barthelmes had always relied on irony to mask the messiness of daily existence. One of the virtues, and sadnesses, of Helen Barthelme’s interesting account is its revelation of just how melancholy the life behind the polished surfaces of Donald’s stories actually was.

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