Here's a story about Buffalo culture that some, typically, would find hard to believe: Morton Feldman, a postmodern composer whose influence is now seen to rival and perhaps surpass that of his friend and mentor John Cage, was explaining his life and art at a public lecture at the University at Buffalo.
In the audience, a large man with a twinkle in his eye and a fringe of beard but no mustache peppered Feldman with somewhat abstrusely jocular comments and questions whose relevance -- whose indeed very coherence -- seemed to be understood by the two of them alone. To others in the audience, it seemed like a decidedly Dada form of audience heckling. Were they present at the birth of a new art form?
When it persisted, an amused but nervous Feldman confessed rather sheepishly to the audience "that man is a friend of mine -- a writer. His name is Donald Barthelme."
How I wish that story had made its way into "Hiding Man," a truly great first biography of a writer who deserves one.
Barthelme's history in Buffalo was fascinating. As Tracy Daugherty writes in this huge and invaluable book, "in the late 1960s and early 1970s, SUNY Buffalo had the money and the vision to assemble possibly the most astounding English Department in the country. Under the leadership of chair Al Cook, the department hired or brought in as visitors (John) Barth, Leslie Fiedler, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Lionel Abel, Helene Cixous, Michel Foucault, Eugenio Donato, John Logan, J.M. Coetzee, Robert Hass, Dwight Macdonald and Don [Barthelme] -- a stellar team of scholars and artists (if disproportionately male)."
This newspaper devoted a full Sunday page to a piece I wrote on Barthelme's work in November 1972 At English Department parties, Barthelme seemed good-humored but there was still a mysterious diffidence, even misery, about a man whose short fiction in the New Yorker was usually perceived as radical merriment.
Five years later, he was briefly the Edward H. Butler lecturer in the department in a chair endowed by the family that once published this newspaper. In a later interview that he finally let me do for a Gusto cover story in 1978 during a brief UB summer visit, he explained over vodkas on a very plush suburban veranda, "you spend your life perfecting a kind of public utterance in your work. That is what you want the world to know."
That he was so loose and comfortable and even eruptively playful with Feldman was significant. He was clearly more comfortable with an avant-garde composer and raffish Manhattanite -- one who, like Barthelme, had close ties with painters -- than he was with some of his lesser UB English Department peers, for whom he was a bit of a window display and hot house exotic.
All of that would have fit tellingly into the loving and brilliantly detailed portrait created by Daugherty in this biography of the writer of short fiction who was once the most exciting -- and the most imitated and influential -- writer in America.
We are, at the moment, living in a period of extraordinary 20th century American literary biography -- not only this but Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor, reviewed in these pages last week, and Blake Bailey's massive and hugely important biography of John Cheever, which officially publishes (along with the Library of America's public of Cheever's complete works in two volumes) in two weeks.
In many ways, the most ground-breaking of the biographies is Daugherty's because it combines immense sympathy and understanding with a great biographer's appetite for the minutiae of quotidian life and applies the details to a literary reputation now in partial eclipse that was one of the most important of the last 50 years.
Until the "minimalism" and "K-mart realism" of Barthelme's younger brother Frederick and, especially, Raymond Carver came along to redefine American fiction yet again, Barthelme's bedazzling Baedeker guides to postmodern city life, full of casual culture, wicked parody and forlorn intelligence (Samuel Beckett was a Barthelme favorite) were the standard that a whole generation of writers once aspired to.
The books were once treasured, especially in their pocket-sized paperback editions -- the story collections "Come Back, Dr. Caligari," "Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts," "City Life," "Sadness," his novel "Snow White."
Writes Daugherty -- who was once Barthelme's writing student in Houston -- "in the 1960s the whole culture, it seemed, paid heed -- absurdities and social disruptions seemed to leap off his pages, weekly, and into the streets of our cities. His New Yorker pieces read like dispatches from the front lines. He had 'managed to place himself in the center of modern consciousness' William Gass wrote. Barthelme knockoffs glutted the lit mags and he even had to disavow a few stories, penned by a canny impostor, that popped up in various publications. He wasn't just influencing other writers: apparently his mischievous spirit inhabited some of them."
When Doestoevsky said of his Russian literary generation "we all came out of the pocket of Gogol's [story] 'Overcoat,' " he was describing the way a young American literary generation once felt about Donald Barthelme.
An entirely new generation has now come back around to Barthelme. Half of McSweeney's 24 -- called "Come Back Donald Barthelme" -- was devoted to his work.
In a way that the most electrically charged work in a given time sometimes does, his fiction had decidedly prophetic echoes. His story "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning" -- whose title was a play on the title of a Jean Renoir film -- reinvented Bobby Kennedy as a Kafkan "K." and had him contemplate the theories of French writers. "The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events." Two months after the piece was published in the New American Review (after the New Yorker's rejection), Kennedy was assassinated.
On a less melancholy note, Barthelme's story "The Joker's Greatest Triumph" -- a kind of literary parallel to what painter Roy Lichtenstein was doing at the time -- bequeathed a regenerated pulp-banal Batman to a world which, a couple years later, would turn him into "camp" television and two decades after that, Tim Burton's pop Wagnerian spectacle.
This is a full and loving biography of a writer who seems to have been every bit as good and mysterious and tantalizing as his work.
Daugherty is that irreplaceable Boswell who understands both the work and the life.
A personal note: in comparing the dates of my Barthelme pieces with the dates in Daugherty's beautifully thorough book, I discovered that the long "vodkas on the veranda" interview I did with him (which was charmingly and very briefly interrupted by his then 12-year-old daughter) was only weeks after the oddly twinned sudden deaths of the two art world powerhouses and mentors who had brought him to New York in the first place to work with them -- Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess.
Under those circumstances -- which Barthelme mentioned but whose actual affect he kept typically well-hidden -- such charm, generosity and openness as he manifested now seem especially remarkable.
Jeff Simon is The News' arts and books editor.
Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme
By Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin's Press
581 pages, $35.