Sunday, August 02, 2009

Review: Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme

Back in the late 1960's and up through the 1980's, it would have been hard to pick up an issue of the New Yorker that did not contain work or at least a mention of Donald Barthelme. One of the great experimental writers of his day, he also managed to breach through and gain a level of mainstream popularity. Now readers can finally get a thorough look at his often guarded life with Tracy Daugherty's thoughtful and beautifully written biography Hiding Man.

hiding man

Son of a successful architect, Barthelme grew up in Houston, TX on the fringes of the mainstream literary and artistic world. While there he fell in love with adventure tales like Sabatini's Captain Blood and humor by writers like James Thurber and SJ Perelman. His father pushed him into the more esoteric influences of Surrrealism, Rabelais and others. After a stint in college----Barthelme never actually graduated----he worked for art galleries and as a newspaper man before following his ambitions in his early twenties to become part of the New York writing scene.

What follows after this intro to Barthelme's life is a grand tour of his work and how his life intersected with it. The main trouble with trying to read Barthelme today is that his work---especially his late 60's and early 70's writings----is very much of the time and understanding it today can be difficult. Daughtery carefully lays out the influences----both literary and worldly----making this a must-read volume for anyone who has troubles understanding why we still need to read Barthelme. Daugherty admits early on to his personal history with DB----he was a student of his and seemed to stay in good touch with him afterward----but Daugherty still manages to develop a fairly balanced book by including positive and negative views on Barthelme's life and work.

Hiding Man extends well beyond Barthelme's own writing. Barthelme not only published some innovative fiction but also managed to exercise a profound influence on literature in general through his involvement with P.E.N., various awards committees and teaching. In one way or another he was an influence on Grace Paley, Thomas Pynchon, Vikram Chandra, Philip Lopate, and many many more.

I first discovered Barthelme reading the anthology After Yesterday's Crash; although Barthelme doesn't have any work in the book, he's referred to several times in Larry McCaffery's introduction. From there I picked up used copies of his collections The Teachings of Don B and City Life as well as Snow White, his first and still probably best known novel. Full of lists, Q & A's, strange bits of dialogue and collages that really pushed against the walls of what fiction can be, I loved his work at first. But by the time I got to Snow White I found the ideas behind these tricks and techniques at their best dated and at their worst empty. It's the later sections of Hiding Man that detail Barthelme's writing career and his desire to not just be an iconoclast but also a great writer that I found more interesting. His work becomes more personal with novels like The Dead Father and more outspoken politically with short story collections like Overnight to Many Distant Cities. I'm very curious to give some of these other ideas a try.

Well written and thoughtful, I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in postmodern fiction, literary history or even someone just looking for a unique biography.


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