Finding things that don’t seem to belong where they are is one of the little pleasures in life when you’re younger and are supposed to be figuring out how the world is ordered in the way that it is. It’s in this spirit that I was always pleased to find one of my favorite books of that time, Donald Barthelme’s 1974 collection Guilty Pleasures, in the nonfiction section of the downtown branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. There it was, an original hardback copy with the requisite 1970s design flourishes (swoopy serif typefaces, faded mustard accents) on a paper dust jacket enclosed in library plastic, resting alongside Erma Bombeck, Hal Borland, and Edmund Burke, among other nonfiction writers with "B" names. Barthelme’s other work, which had been introduced to me via some bizarre oversight in my high school’s English curriculum, all typically sat in the fiction section. Guilty Pleasures, with its Victorian picture collages, woolly satire, and (wholly reasonable, given the ultimate outcome) fixation with Nixon, didn’t seem much different than his similar works of fiction. But Melvil Dewey had passed a judgement of "nonfiction" on this one.
I certainly didn’t give much thought about how written works were formally classified, though I think understanding the pieces in Guilty Pleasures as nonfiction made the world seem like a more exciting and lively place than it might have seemed presented the same way in a novel or, you know, experimental fiction. In the book’s introduction, Barthelme refers to a few of the pieces as “bastard reportage,” and others as “simple expressions of stunned wonder at the fullness and mysteriousness of our political life.” Those two descriptions strike me now, reading them for the first time in years in my own copy of Guilty Pleasures, as a useful way of thinking about the sort of nonfiction and essay-based work I’ve enjoyed reading and attempted myself.
Though Barthelme’s nonfiction was whimsical and, if we’re being honest, a bit dated, it did share with legitimate reportage a sense of engagement with the world, and some hard-to-define skill at reflecting back that engagement in weird and pleasing ways. There was, throughout all of his work, a sort of alternately bemused and irritated cataloguing of life as it was lived in the East Village in the 1970s. As a teenager totally bored with the cultural, political and economic life of the suburban American South in the 1990s, this worldview was incredibly exciting. Not to mention useful, eventually: even a half-clever teenager eventually figures out this sort of cataloguing works well for reflecting the world around him or her, no matter how boring the writer might find it (or how terrible the resulting writing is).
You passively follow your youthful favorites for the rest of your life, in the same way I suppose you follow the beloved ballplayers or bands of your youth. You take special note when they merit a quick mention in a newspaper story or online piece – maybe they opened a used car dealership, or had their debut album reissued with expanded liner notes (indie bands of the 1990s very rarely open used car dealerships). Although there was a full-length biography of him a few years ago, Barthelme has generally fallen out of favor in most literary or cultural circles. Or at least the local bookstores don’t hide The Teachings of Don B behind the counter to prevent impassioned kids from stealing it, like they do with the Bukowskis. But I always perk up when I hear Barthelme’s work invoked.
The only time I’ve really heard it invoked recently was a short piece by novelist Thomas Mallon in the New York Times earlier this year, on “negative influences.” This was a roundup of writers commenting on writers whose work “inspired them to take an opposing approach in their own writing.” Mallon mentions Brautigan and Barth and other Watergate-era collegiate favorites before singling out Barthelme specifically as a writer whose approach he found too zany and untethered to be of much use. “A writer freed from the need to calibrate with reality, or even be internally consistent,” he notes, “could put a washing machine into the sky along with a rainbow. So why not put a rhinoceros up there too? Where my contemporaries reacted with an ‘Oh, wow,’ I shrugged with something more like ‘Whatever.’”
His critique is a fair one – I can imagine being a smart, historically minded undergrad in the late ’60s and dismissing the wacky countercultural dudeliness of the time with a “whatever” – but it seemed to me to miss the thing that I liked most about Barthelme’s approach, then and now. The inventiveness of the language and the whoa-far-out qualities of the scenarios he’d dream up in some of the short stories were maybe interesting as formal experiments, but the essays of Barthelme always seemed to me to be the work of a man whose approach was very calibrated with the reality of the time and place. Most of the pieces that might qualify as bastard reportage in Guilty Pleasures – the cheese parable “Swallowing,” the self-explanatory “And Now Let’s Hear it for the Ed Sullivan Show!”, the breathless, on-the-scene reporting of “Two Hours to Curtain,” the dystopian picture-story “A Nation of Wheels,” the countercultural university catalog recitation “Heliotrope” – resonate not because they’re simply bizarre fantasias held aloft by their own whimsy.
Instead, it was the work of a person who was very aware of the political and cultural landscape, and engaged in regular investigations into how it sounded, what it meant, and what written and verbal forms it took. His Ed Sullivan piece is a excitable recitation of the onscreen action – Don Rickles, Helen Hayes, Mary Hopkin, Russian dancers – which acts as a time capsule, a wry commentary on the mass culture of the day, a semi-satire of Tom Wolfe-style New Journalism, and a direct ancestor of the contemporary online TV recap. It’s all stripped bare of the sort of thoughtful, studied reflection that typically marks the essay format. But what else would you call it, really? It's too tethered to reality to be anything else.
The “stunned wonder at the fullness and mysteriousness of our political life” that Barthelme mentions in his introduction is more of an ironic deflection than a statement of purpose, a tip of the hat to the fashionable “torpor” of the era to which he alludes in other essays in the book. But there was no doubt to me, twenty years later, that he was paying close attention to that fullness and mysteriousness.
“I listen to people talk, and I read,” Barthelme said in a 1980 interview, when asked how he was able to affect such a wide variety of tones, voices, styles and types of lingo in his work. “I doubt there has ever been more jargon and professional cant – cant of various professions and semi-professions – than there is today.” Reading and listening to people talk is of course good advice for a writer in any era. The secret sauce is the ability to take what you find in the fullness and mysteriousness of cultural life and engineer in such a way that it still finds its way into the nonfiction section of the library.
Andy Sturdevant is the author of the collection Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, published by Coffee House Press in 2013. He lives in Minneapolis.