Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tracy Daugherty's "Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme" (Cadillac)

"Try to be a man about whom
nothing is known." D.B.
This is a biography of the best 20th century writer I can think of.

It's been about 16 years since my introduction to Barthelme's work - by way of a Kurt Vonnegut phase, which led to a Thomas Pynchon phase, which led me to a chance exposure to Pynchon's 'Introduction' for the collection "The Teachings of Don B."  This was a great entry point to the author for me, at a time when I was ready for his distinctive and innovative voice, sharp humour and perceptive social commentary.

I quickly absorbed all the Barthelme I could scrounge (in the early days of the internet, this meant trolling used book stores, as much of his work was out of print at the time).  While most celebrated for his short fiction, longer works like "Snow White", "The Dead Father" and "The King" also had a profound resonance with me.

Daugherty's text is superb for its intimate and comprehensive exploration of the subject without bogging down.  A former student of Barthelme's, Daugherty traces the making of the writer to well back before his birth.  His father, an architect of some note in Texas, imprinted a similar sensibility and critical perspective on his son.  A passion and keen eye for all of the arts also figure prominently in his themes and groundbreaking form as a 'father' of postmodern fiction.  In fact, form is really the most prominent feature of his legacy and gift to subsequent generations of writers; Dave Eggers comes to mind here, certainly.

Barthelme's personal life, particularly his time spent in New York, was one filled with countless connections to the literary and other arts (Pynchon lived in the basement of his building while banging out Gravity's Rainbow - getting hammered at Elaine De Kooning's place on a regular basis - to provide just two examples).  This was always paralleled by tireless advocacy and championing of the arts in his community, and beyond.

Photo of a young D.B.
(Counterpoint to the more
common/iconic image of
'bearded professorial Don'
from his later years.)

While a very private writer in many ways (hence the title), biographical elements slip into and inform his fiction - something this text has helped me to recognize and appreciate much more fully.  For example, 'fatherhood' makes for a thick seam through Hiding Man on multiple levels.  Daugherty sheds light on how 'fatherhood' plays out in his personal life (as son, father, mentor, teacher, etc.) as well as providing a root theme he examines and unpacks in several of his works both subtly and overtly.

While it's not accurate to consider him a troubled artist as such, he was haunted by booze through much of his life ("a little drunk, all of the time"), and heavy smoking ultimately robbed us of his voice in the form of throat cancer in 1989...


This link provides as comprehensive a collection of Barthelme's work as can be found online - many stories, articles, and such are there in full.  I plaintively demand that more people read Barthelme.  Check out (at least) the following two short pieces: 

Excerpt from the novel "Snow White"
- My lovely wife bought me a 1st ed. HC of this a few years back on my b-day.  This excerpt is a favourite passage from a favourite novel.

The first thing the baby did wrong...
- I posted this very short work to FB upon the impending birth of my son Simon.  A great lesson for all fathers with a passion for books.

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