Could Donald Barthelme Be The Most Amusing American Writer Who Ever Lived?
July 24, 2002 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Could Donald Barthelme Be The Most Amusing American Writer Who Ever Lived? Is wrestling fixed? Do bears shit in the woods? To my mind, he's the best American writer I've ever read. He's probably also the most underrated and least known master of the short story. Jessamyn's web site is full of his wonderful, endlessly re-readable tales. My favourite is probably The Funeral Of Edward Lear. But they're all quite dazzlingly funny and beautiful. [WARNING: once you've read this small selection you may well find yourself intelligently investing around $100 to get hold of all his books. He died in 1989 but he writes as if he were yet to be born - say tomorrow morning at the latest.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (27 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I didn't know Donald Barthelme, but didn't find myself struck head-over-heels by the wondrousness of "The Funeral of Edward Lear"... Is there another that's reccomended (and short [I'm at work, after all])?

If we're speaking of American humourists, what of James Thurber?
posted by Marquis at 8:29 AM on July 24, 2002

never heard of him. I find his humor a bit dry, slightly ironic and predictable. Sorry Dr. C. I can think of 20 other U.S. writers...and so can you.....Thurber...he wrote A&P? Catbird seat? I love the image when she wrangles that self-rightoues grin..."whats a matter, cat got yer tounge" instant Ralph Kramden towards those types.
posted by clavdivs at 8:35 AM on July 24, 2002

No mention of Barthelme is complete for me without bringing up this again.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:35 AM on July 24, 2002

Try Me And Mrs. Mandible, Marquis. Barthelme is a writer who's often funny but is usually melancholy and philosophically playful. He's definitely not a humorist (the greatest of which has got to be S.J.Perelman!).
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:36 AM on July 24, 2002

The canon of American humor:

1. Mark Twain
2. Don Barthelme
3. James Thurber

I was super-pissed in '89 when Don died, because it was the same year Ray Carver died. And guess who got all the fuss?

My favorite Barthelme pieces:
1. How I write my songs
2. I bought a little city
3. The dolt
posted by rocketman at 8:37 AM on July 24, 2002

Er, "Me And Miss Mandible".
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:37 AM on July 24, 2002

posted by delmoi at 8:40 AM on July 24, 2002

Ooh, I liked the Mandible. Will read more later.
posted by Marquis at 8:49 AM on July 24, 2002

Rocketman: it's just so difficult defining "humorist"; it's probably just a bogus category like "detective novelist", but I reckon it means a writer of mainly short pieces that openly set out to make the reader chuckle.

Robert Benchley, Fran Leibowitz, S.J.Perelman, Woody Allen, James Thurber, Stephen Leacock, Steve Martin (whose "Pure Drivel" is am hilarious collection), for instance, I'd consider humorists. And all excellent.

Mark Twain and Donald Barthelme are just (great, great) writers - although they're both terrifically funny. Actually - and though I'm the proud owner of his collected works (still available on Amazon for a ridiculous price, even though it's a slightly tawdry illustrated edition) - I'd forgotten Mark Twain when I ventured Barthelme was the best American writer.

Mark Twain is probably the better writer - much more versatile, can do anything, invented his own style - but I still prefer Barthelme.

*Oh and beware neophites because there are at least another two writers called Barthelme out there - Frederick and Steven. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:53 AM on July 24, 2002

Thurber...he wrote A&P?

What do you mean by "A&P?" Makes me think of the Updike short story....
posted by rushmc at 8:59 AM on July 24, 2002

Read "The Teachings of Don B". You'll never be the same.
posted by dhoyt at 9:02 AM on July 24, 2002

I still think that Pynchon is a superior artist; read Gravity's Rainbow and see if you don't agree. Still, I'm always a little bummed at how few people have read Barthelme -- he was a great writer and deserves to be more widely known.
posted by mrmanley at 9:11 AM on July 24, 2002

Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby is my favorite. In fact, it is strangely appropriate in Our Friend Miguel's thread here.
posted by captain obvious at 9:47 AM on July 24, 2002

I was kinda hoping nobody noticed that. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:48 AM on July 24, 2002

I recommend The Glass Mountain, which is very enjoyable when read aloud.

"The End of the Mechanical Age" is also goods, but I couldn't find a good except online, so here's a small cut-and-paste snippet:
"God was standing in the basement reading the meters to see how much grace had been used up in the month of June. Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket."

"The Mechanical age is drawing to a close," I said to her.

"Or has already done so," she replied.

"It was a good age," I said. "I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don't like its look."

"One must be fair. We don't know yet what kind of age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well being and comfort" (273).
I offer to you "The End of the Mechanical Age" read by Roscoe Lee Browne (MP3) for more investigation.
posted by kathryn at 9:53 AM on July 24, 2002

I'm not a huge fan but I quite like the story Chablis, which doesn't appear to be online.
posted by dobbs at 9:55 AM on July 24, 2002

PinkStainessTail: that link was a great read, thanks.
posted by insomnyuk at 10:17 AM on July 24, 2002

I was blown away by that Harpers article when it first came out. What a freaky story. Has there been any follow-up? FWIW, I think Barthelme is a fantastic writer.
posted by anathema at 11:14 AM on July 24, 2002

oh, wrong writer. A&P (not title) that is where kid quits his job-authority, girls, regret...good story. Pynchon may be superior but i think the styles are very different. Barthelme seems more akin to Twain, perhaps a wry Bierce. Burroughs makes me laugh the most. What i like is Bs' , well, he seems an easier read. feel for not being familiar with his work. What a wonderful sence of image from 'EOMA'- reading meters, flashlight in blue jump suit. perhaps the butt-crack would be a little to much.
posted by clavdivs at 12:14 PM on July 24, 2002

His thing about the Tolstoy museum is funny, too. I met Fredrick and he's a major dork.
posted by bingo at 1:13 PM on July 24, 2002

I vote for coldchef, and, Miguel, I think you'd be wise to do the same.
posted by goneill at 1:25 PM on July 24, 2002

Okay, I'm logged onto my library right now. Which one of these books am I requesting: Amateurs, Great days, Sadness, The dead father, Snow white (?), Forty stories, Sixty Stories (Now With 33% More Stories!), Paradise, City life, Come back, Dr. Caligari or Unspeakable practices, unnatural acts?
posted by Shadowkeeper at 1:50 PM on July 24, 2002

Sixty Stores for stories, Snow White for novel.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:51 PM on July 24, 2002

What, being the original drummer for the Red Krayola makes you a major dork now? I've studied with both Frederick and Steven Barthleme, and they're fine teachers and very fine writers. I recommend Double Down, Bob the Gambler, and the short stories especially. FB is also the editor of Mississippi Review, which spawned a web version way before everybody else got into it. NYT links. Bio.
posted by muckster at 1:51 PM on July 24, 2002

What, being the original drummer for the Red Krayola makes you a major dork now?

Fancy not knowing that with my nick. Good day for trivia.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:58 PM on July 24, 2002

But what about his reductive cardboard constructions? Hee hee.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:09 PM on July 24, 2002

I like The Jokers Greatest Triumph because it is a Batman episode masterfully slowed down. The bat signal goes up, and as Batman goes to change, he and his visitor are chatting about Thanksgiving plans. Off the top of my head, Ming is funny too.
posted by mblandi at 3:42 PM on July 24, 2002

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