THE KING by Donald Barthelme


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Well before his unexpected death last year, Barthelme had ceased to be a writer on the cutting edge, where his early work had established him. His best books in the last decade were collections of stories mostly from his glory days as a supreme satirist and innovator who explored the boundaries of the then-new fiction. If anything, this most peculiar posthumous publication suggests the dead-end always waiting potentially in his fictional development. Here, he plays with history and comes up with a strange story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table fighting during WW II. But to what point? Though the diction is more Elizabethan than Medieval--with lots of ""avaunt's,"" ""God wot's,"" ""verily's,"" and ""methinks""--the action is strictly the stuff of mass-market comic books, with the same ponderous level of social commentary and the same sophomoric sense of humor. Arthur, Gawain, Launcelot, and the boys all bemoan the advancements in warfare since their heyday, a time best left to chessboards. Even Guinevere is wont to ask, ""What is one knight on horseback, however accomplished, to six hundred aircraft engaged in precision bombing?"" Indeed. Meanwhile, Lord Haw-Haw and Ezra Pound darken the airwaves with gloomy prospects for British survival and anti-Semitic rantings. Arthur's domestic problems mount: Modred, something of a fifth columnist, wants to blow up most of London out of spite while trying to wrestle power from Sir Kay, Arthur's chosen administrator. Launcelot worries about media management; the Red Knight promotes loyalty to ""the Party""; and Walter the Penniless poaches and preaches a populist crusade. The new Grail is of course the bomb, the result of Merlin's alchemy. The tabloids can't keep up with Guinevere's scandalous behavior, and Arthur is tired of being king, what with the problems of taxation, succession, and the like. Illustrations (unseen) by the acclaimed Barry Moser can do little to help this heavy-handed, spiritless affair.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1990
ISBN: 1564784134
Publisher: Harper & Row