Why a Barthelme retrospective now--when presumably he's only at mid-career and when virtually all of his work is in print (in both hardcover and paperback)? No explanation--or introduction of any kind--is given here; maybe it's simply in celebration of the author's recent 50th birthday. In any case, this generous recycling, plus nine recent pieces not previously collected, does pack together just about all the short-form Barthelme most readers will ever need, though there is one minor limitation (an inadequate reflection of DB's use of period graphics) and one major one: Barthelme-the-satirist is barely in evidence (where's that sublime Castaneda parody, ""Conversations with Don B.""?), perhaps because of fears of dated-ness. Still, those who want a taste of Barthelme's savage send-ups can consult one of the new pieces: ""How I Write My Songs""--a cruel parody that (unlike the work of such DB imitators as George W. S. Trow) goes beyond mere culture-watching into a kind of pained, dreamy absurdism. And all the other Barthelmes are on fine display: the intensely visual constructor of fantasy landscapes (""The Balloon""); the chilly yet poignant re-maker of fables (""The Phantom of the Opera's Friend""); the master of philosophical ping-pong, with Heidegger or Kierkegaard as opponents (""Nothing: A Preliminary Account""); the Kafka-esque surrealist, the hatcher of psycho-verbal nightmares (an excerpt from The Dead Father), the assembler of cultural-artifact collages. Furthermore, this 20-year gathering points up, almost embarrassingly, the enormous Barthelme influence on trendy writing mannerisms developed in the 19?Os--by lesser writers (critics, essayists, novelists) who rarely can ground the cool, eclectic dissociations in genuine thought and feeling. And Barthelme's own stylistic restlessness is clearly charted--as he tries on (and mocks) one genre after another, finally settling on a bleak/wild dialogue form (Beckett-like at its best) to project his smiling, writhing despair. The best examples of this biting yet musical late-Barthelme style are from Great Days (1979), but the somewhat disappointing new work includes: a neat sequel to ""On the Steps of the Conservatory"" (Great Days); ""The Emerald,"" a witty, catchall near-self-parody which goes on a little too long; and ""Grandmother's House""--a jagged, leaping, semi-associative conversation which somehow suggests, hilariously and nightmarishly, the deterioration of everything worth saving. Lots of very good old Barthelme, then, a smidgin of pretty good new Barthelme: a collection without a reason, perhaps, but an expansive sampling for newcomers and a chic bedside book for fans who want to replace their tattered paperbacks.