Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, Tracy Daugherty. St Martin’s Press. 581pp, $35.00.
Unlike any other form of nonfiction writing, the literary biography is routinely asked to justify its own existence. The genre’s subjects are of interest for what they wrote, obviously, so skeptics ask why we need still more words to illuminate the person’s relevance. Travelogues, memoirs, narrative histories, even biographies of other types of artists are accepted as pure endeavors, without the need for an occasional ruminative essay by John Updike or William Gass to defend the form. Like the beleaguered desert travelers hauling the titular metaphor in Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, literary biographers remain tethered to the lumbering burden of necessity, almost always tied down by the threat of possible accusations—of intellectual shortcutting, of gossip mongering, or worse still, of reading a given writer’s work as too explicitly autobiographical.
Barthelme’s case is a salient one, as his aggressively experimental style(s) and seemingly impersonal work resist the too-perfect sub-Freudian readings that mar lesser biographies. (He disliked Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett for exactly this reason.) Don B. was a founding member of the 1960s and ’70s Death of the Author camp, he was a shaman figure among the postmodern vanguard that rejected the very possibility of neatly ordered, objective reality in print. An honest narrative of his life would therefore need to assert that Barthelme’s personal experiences informed his fiction—i.e., that his fiction wasn’t merely the learned parodies and dry formal exercises it sometimes appears to be—while simultaneously resisting the urge to over-analyze every stray image employed by a man who had little time for convention, including “write what you know.” It would take a sympathetic, thoughtful, and even-handed biographer to achieve such a balance, and the result, under the best of circumstances, would be an important step toward a greater appreciation of Barthelme’s complexities. Given the criteria, it’s hard to look at Tracy Daugherty’s recent book, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, as anything other than a best-case scenario.
Hiding Man is so good that it vaporizes the natural skepticism that Barthelmaniacs may have toward a biography of their idol. For one, it’s beautifully written; Daugherty is a fiction writer himself, and he writes with an unfussy yet musical style that animates Don B.’s story and brings him to life as a character. For another, the book is gorgeously designed by Jason Ryan Ramirez and Maura Fadden Rosenthal—a small point but an important one given Barthelme’s own lifelong obsessions with page layout and visual art. Most refreshingly, however, Daugherty indeed manages to infuse a little humanity into Barthelme’s prickly work without belaboring the point. There are more explicit autobiographical references in Barthelme’s stories than might appear, but equally numerous and important are the myriad literary, philosophical, cinematic, and artistic allusions dispersed throughout his writing. These are just as essential to interpreting the Barthelme oeuvre as his more intimate nitty-gritty, and Daugherty’s impressive research thus adds to our understanding of his subject’s output without dwelling on unnecessary personal details.
Daugherty was a student of Barthelme’s during the writer’s late-life employment at the University of Houston, which means Hiding Man is a tribute to a friend as well as an academic/journalistic exercise. In a touching introduction, Daugherty offers a short anecdote about professor Barthelme and explains his motives forthrightly: “I still want to know Don better so as to know better the world he knew. . . . He still has lessons to teach us.” Indeed, like any good biography, Hiding Man also functions as a tour of the subject’s various eras and homes, from WWII-era Houston to 1960s Greenwich Village, the Korean War, and the peak of American postmodern literature. Those looking for gossip, including personal glimpses of the famous reclusive postmodernists whom Barthelme befriended, will be largely disappointed. (I was naively prepared for more Pynchon, who appears only in a brief cameo, writing Gravity’s Rainbow in the apartment below Barthelme’s on W. 11th St. in Manhattan, and in quotations from his marvelous introductory essay to The Teachings of Don B.) Daugherty’s focus, for all its depth of detail, remains steadfastly on his old teacher and the man’s work. And despite the personal setup, this is no exercise in hagiography; Barthelme’s variously unsuccessful marriages, his alcoholism, and the fluctuating quality of his work are all addressed appropriately, so that even when Daugherty ends his book with a somewhat maudlin story about the last time he ever saw Don (“‘Write a story about a genius,’ he told me”), you can’t accuse him of idolizing his subject.
The prose in Hiding Man is consistently inspired. Here’s Daugherty on Barthelme’s experience in Korea, part of a short yet chilling section on this “forgotten war”:
Stilled by the punishing weather, and with no imminent threat of combat, the men grew bored, lazy, careless. It was easy to make a mistake with the equipment, to trip over something—a jerrican full of water, a sleeping bag—and sustain a serious injury. The men shaved several times a day, just to have something to do.
Notably, the commas enforce a readerly rhythm, one that mimics the redundant, marching boredom of the battalion’s routine. Daugherty also subtly incorporates elements of Barthelme’s style in this quote—the orderly lists, the experience of group malaise, the mock reportorial tone—and thus implies how a specific life experience may have informed these gestures in Barthelme’s work. Compare it to the opening of a stylistically exemplary story:
So I bought a little city (it was Galveston, Texas) and told everybody that nobody had to move, we were going to do it just gradually, very relaxed, no big changes overnight. They were pleased and suspicious.
Those neat, organizational commas are also a remnant of The New Yorker’s influence on Barthelme (Daugherty quotes E.B. White: “commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim”), and while Don frequently wrote in a more impressionistic, flowing style that raised the editorial ire of William Shawn, his relationship with the magazine was a defining aspect of his life, both before and during his professional writing career. Like Richard Ellmann, author of perhaps the greatest-ever literary biography, James Joyce, Daugherty has the primary task of explaining the origins of a seemingly unprecedented prose style that emerged, fully developed, in the writer’s first work. And like Ellmann, Daugherty finds that the style in question, far from being sui generis, is actually a composite of countless influences: Beckett, Baudelaire, Kafka, and Joyce himself, (most obviously), but also New Yorker humorists like S.J. Perelman and James Thurber; The Baltimore Catechism; Hemingway; Nathanael West; the jazz drummer Big Sid Catlett; Heinrich von Kleist; silent movies; Rabelais; Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood (Barthelme’s favorite boyhood novel).
Another influence Daugherty identifies is the constantly evolving, innovative architectural style of his famous father, Donald Sr. “What accounts for his [Barthelme's] resistance to traditional forms?” asks Daugherty. “His father taught him to notice structure, to understand its origins, to appreciate variations on it, and to value innovation.” The elder Donald Barthelme was a prominent and revered architect in Texas and beyond, one whose contemporary, Euro-influenced style helped bring Houston into its golden age of design post-WWII. He introduced his son to a handful of books that would remain a part of Don Jr.’s life into adulthood, and he presided over a household that was consistently intellectually stimulating and competitive. Don was a rebellious person by nature, but his relationship with his father never exploded into intergenerational misunderstanding as one might expect; as seen in his writing, he respected his own personal and artistic origins even as he rarely stopped to idolize them. Like his peers—Barth, Coover, Vonnegut, Abish, Hawkes, Gass—he felt uncomfortable with the critical label “postmodern,” given the implications that they were somehow out to correct the earlier generation’s mistakes. Barthelme was instead out to “make it new” just like Eliot, to build on prior eras’ ideas rather than scrap them altogether. This mentality originated in his relationship with Donald Sr., and by all accounts Barthelme was committed to the generations that came after him, whether as a teacher, father, or literary figure. Grace Paley, one of Barthelme’s closest adult friends, also noted that he lived across the street from a school, which made him, in Daugherty’s words, “one of the few American men writing in the mid-twentieth century who paid vivid attention to children.”
If anything, Daugherty’s project seems to suffer from a dearth of good biographical dirt—Barthelme drank to excess, he had trouble staying married, he fought in a war, and he labored in perpetual debt, but these are hardly unique circumstances, particularly among mid-century professional writers. And Barthelme had the added benefits of a stable, supportive childhood and family, a comfortable and routine home for publication at The New Yorker, and a number of stimulating, helpful friends no matter where he lived. The man’s life was as quietly messy as anyone else’s, but he remained a distinctly middle-class creature throughout, most comfortable with a Scotch and some jazz LPs, and always happy to converse. Yet that very characteristic, rather than making for a milquetoast biography, instead points out what was perhaps Barthelme’s greatest achievement: he smuggled the avant-garde into the mainstream. He took a lot of flack from his contemporaries for resigning his boundary-pushing work to an Upper West Side weekly. “For someone so bright,” Daugherty quotes Jerome Charyn, “I don’t know why he treated [The New Yorker] with such respect.” And Vonnegut used Barthelme’s association with the publication as “a good example of how a magazine like The New Yorker confines one’s growth.”
Yet these judgments expect too much of Barthelme, who had no personal desire to set fire to the establishment, and who grew up glorifying The New Yorker as much as any reading he ever did. To decry his work for somehow not being boundary-pushing enough seems disingenuous. Daugherty says, “Don learned from watching his father practice architecture that art’s goal is the health and betterment of the community. Without compromising, one works to change the world—and this means moving, when you can, within spheres of power.”
This is a startling claim, since Barthelme’s best-known stories often come packaged as clever parody (“Me and Miss Mandible”), fictionalized sociology (“At the End of the Mechanical Age”), zeitgeisty paranoia pieces (“The Indian Uprising,” “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning”), or self-reflexive explanations for postmodern literary practice (“The Balloon,” The Dead Father). The cleverness and humor of the work often masks deeper emotional registers, however (Barthelme’s 1972 collection was simply titled Sadness), just as the writer’s linguistic talent and range sometimes overwhelms his empathy and social concern. So many great Barthelme stories are written from the collective point of view; even when the narrators are first-person, the pronoun “we” pops up in Barthelme’s work more consistently than in any of his contemporaries’. Gaddis and Pynchon addressed the difficulty of maintaining personal identity in the midst of gigantic social systems, while Barth and Gass saw the same predicament in the labyrinth of language itself. Yet as I reread some of my favorite Barthelme—”The School,” “A City of Churches,” “City Life,” “Views of My Father Weeping,” “Porcupines at the University,” “The Balloon,” the excellent Teachings shorts like “Swallowing” and “Snap Snap”—I was struck by how engaging it all is. Not only because they’re all quite effective as humor pieces but because of how well Barthelme dramatizes collective mentalities; his work takes place in professional and educational settings, or, as in his great dialogue-driven pieces like “Margins” and “A City of Churches,” during awkward moments of urban interaction. Barthelme, unlike his novel-sized peers, was a perpetual minimalist, yet he captured the swell of consumer culture as well of any of them; to my mind, only Coover’s astounding The Public Burning achieves the same balanced authorial presence between internal emotion and city-wide hysteria, and like Coover, Barthelme was, at his best, in search of something essential about the American character. “The Balloon” and “Robert Kennedy,” for example, have their own divergent subjects and styles, yet they both ultimately concern the collective gaze of an unseen public. Barthelme also routinely returned, both in his life and in stories like “Hiding Man,” to movie theaters, where people sit alone, quiet, in the dark, yet all staring together at romanticized depictions of humankind.
The story that Daugherty keeps coming back to, however, is “See The Moon?” in which an expectant father narrates his autobiography to his unborn son, Gog. At first glance it seems like just another one of Barthelme’s pandemonious, first-person surrealist monologues, but Daugherty demonstrates just how much of his own life the author inserted into this piece. It also forms a kind of thematic Rosetta Stone for Barthelme’s work, encompassing the narrator’s difficulties with school, the army, family, medication, romantic relationships, and urban expansion. This is, as Daugherty shows us, about as self-obsessed and autobiographical as Barthelme ever got in his fiction, and yet even the title (a play on a line from Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck) offers, like “The Balloon,” an image of communal focus. And after the narrator finishes his torrent of personalized, first-person detail, “Gog leaps fully armed from the womb,” and the story ends with a sudden, first-person-plural declaration: “Hello there Gog. We hope you’ll be very happy here.”
Daugherty quotes John Romano’s review of Sixty Stories in The New York Times Book Review, where he says, “The spirit [of Barthelme's work] is: Many things are silly, especially about modern language, and there is much sadness everywhere, but all is roughly well. So let’s try and enjoy ourselves, as intelligently as possible,” which in its own twinkly way indentifies the generosity, the collective enthusiasm that makes Barthelme’s best work so poignant. For a man whose intellectual and creative peers were obsessed, however brilliantly, with the difficulty of human communication and the ceaseless boundaries to authentic emotional experience, Barthelme had the audacity to write as “we.” Even though his more difficult prose can seem overly arch and uninviting, the collected work feels very grounded—in the political developments of the author’s time; in the ongoing deluge of the era’s pop culture and the historical precedents thereof; in the rhythms of City Life and Sadness. More than most of his contemporaries, Barthelme was a flâneur, and it therefore makes sense that his work appeared largely in an urbane, glossy weekly rather than between the covers of enormous meta-novels every five to ten years.
One of the last times Barthelme saw his novelist friends was when he returned to New York and gathered Gaddis, Barth, Hawkes, Coover, Gass, Vonnegut, and Abish, along with their spouses, into an expensive SoHo restaurant in 1983. Don was the coordinator and bon vivant of the group, even making up place settings to maximize conversation. Barthelme was also the first of the group to die, only six years later, and no meeting of the kind has taken place since. It’s appropriate that out of all these writers a biography of him comes first, as he was at once the most stylistically set-apart of the group and its most effective ambassador to the mainstream. Now we can only hope that the rest of these artists get honored with books as good as Hiding Man, ones that reposition their own daunting achievements as the products of incredible minds as well as deep feeling.
John Lingan is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. He is the managing editor of Splice Today. Read his interview with Tracy Daugherty.
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