Donald Barthelme: Flying to America

Donald Barthelme: Flying to AmericaWhenever an artist dies, someone’s always tempted to raid their notebooks, letters, hard drives, and anything else they can find in order to put out still more product to add to the canon. The results are highly varied, since for every unfinished masterpiece and every piece that hints at the greatness that could’ve been, from sources as varied as Douglas Adams, Jeff Buckley, or Charles Dickens, there’s a slew of stuff that was probably best left to the cutting room floor, and that’s of interest only to completists (think, for instance, of the flood of Tupac Shakur marginalia that began just as the body was cooling, and that continues unabated to this day).

Flying to America: 45 More Stories, by Donald Barthelme, lands with a meaty thump between those extremes. While it’s not the best of his output by any means–and I’ll leave the debate over the merits of specific works to others who are more inclined than myself to take it up–it’s still a worthy addition to the artist’s body of work.

For starters, Barthelme was fortunate to have a good literary executor, in the person of Kim Herzinger. Herzinger, a literary critic, former university professor, and now owner of Left Bank Books, has carefully tended the Barthelme legacy with this book and two that preceded it, The Teachings of Don B. (1992) and Not Knowing (1997). Then there’s the fact that nearly twenty years after his death, Barthelme has become quietly fashionable again. Reading the likes of Dave Eggers (whose McSweeney’s recently devoted a fair amount of space to Barthelme) or David Foster Wallace (who, early on, seemed as though he couldn’t decide whether to be Barthelme or Pynchon, ’til he finally settled on being David Foster Wallace), you’re reminded that Barthelme has a deep influence among a certain breed of writers and English majors.

So it’s time, again, to reappraise Donald Barthelme, which is all well and good. But there’s not much new or otherwise unavailable in this volume, much of it having been drawn from Barthelme’s first collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari. Only three of the stories are previously unavailable anywhere, and of the remainder, many seem tentative. One gets the sense that the reason many of these stories weren’t anthologized earlier (especially in the essential Sixty Stories and Forty Stories) is precisely because they were the works of an artist that hadn’t yet fully matured or grown into himself.

The closest analogy I can think to offer is with Post-painterly Abstraction, where the purpose of technique is to call attention to technique. There’s a self-consciousness evident here that’s not evident in much of Barthelme’s later, better work. The brush-strokes, and the effort, are too much on display in many of these pieces. Anyone who cares to can browse this collection and find all of the signature Barthelme touches: the dark wit, the dialogue that prefigures “Seinfeld,” prose that aspires sometimes to jazz, sometimes to architecture, and a worldview that recalls Joyce or Beckett with a nasty hangover.

But in the end, “The art,” to quote Shakespeare, “is to conceal the art.” That’s what makes what could have been a great book merely a pretty good one by a great writer. Had this been published earlier–after The King, but before The Teachings of Don B.–it might not have seemed the anticlimax (to this reader, at least) that it did following on the heels of two very good collections that would themselves have been the perfect epitaph to the author’s writing life.

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