(Donald Barthelme) (stories 1964 – c. 1980)
A big anthology was always going to be a publishing challenge for a master miniaturist. The longer pieces here feel forced, repetitive (without consolatory cadence), smacking of desperation and Rushdie-like lists. When Barthelme works out an angle and sticks to it, he can be very good. His famous hit, ‘The School’, is hilarious. He is also menacingly funny where the violence is barely suppressed: in ‘Game’, two men are going berserk while stationed at a missile silo; there’s a kind of Straw Dogs meets Sleepers scenario in ‘For I’m the Boy’; in ‘On Angels’ the death of god requires a new paradigm; ‘The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend’ mirrors his disturbed buddy’s dilemma; there is healthy hostility as a man puts his girlfriend’s analyst straight in ‘The Sandman’.
His long, didactic pieces pall, though and even then, some lovely phrases shine through the murk: “Dun-colored fathers tend to shy at obstacles, and therefore you do not want a father of this color, because life, in one sense, is nothing but obstacles, and his continual shying will reduce your nerves to grease.” (‘A manual for Sons’). Lots of drinking and John Cheever- ill will predominate, quite richly for the patient reader, “slumped there in your favorite chair, with your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array…”