April 7, 2014

Happy Birthday, Donald Barthelme


Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme

Eighty-three years ago today, Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, PA. The author of many collections of short stories, four novels, a children’s book (The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, or the Hithering Thithering Djinn), and a couple of collections of essays and irregular pieces, Barthelme worked as a reporter, magazine editor, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and professor of creative writing.

Barthelme’s short stories, with their gleeful putting-on and taking-off of different registers and personae, reanimated fiction for me with a jolt sometime in the early ‘00s when a friend gave me a copy of Sixty Stories, in its electric blue and purple psychedelic-grass jacket. They went farther and faster than anything else I was reading at the time, they were hilarious, and, like the New York School poets, they approached large topics as if they could indeed be mastered and understood in forms not usually thought suited to the purpose. Could you, for instance, catalogue all “the pleasures of peace” in a single poem? Oh, sure, yeah.

Or capitalism: could its contributions and effects be analyzed in under 2,000 words? Could ham radio and bubble bath and Balzac also be involved, as well as a lacerating take on the role love and fear play in the system? And also the word “dawg”? In Don B’s honor, I give you “The Rise of Capitalism,” as read by this other Barthelme fan and his expressive eyebrows:

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.