The author of Snow White and numerous other postmodern classics gets a generous biography from a former student.
Though well researched, this is an old-fashioned, fond celebration rather than a dispassionate analysis of Donald Barthelme’s life (1931–89). Novelist Daugherty (English and Creative Writing/Oregon State Univ.; Late in the Standoff, 2005, etc.) begins and ends with appreciative, affecting memories of his encounters with Barthelme during the 1980s, first as professor and grad student at the University of Houston, then as friends. The pages in between take a traditional look at a most unusual man and writer. Daugherty sketches the family’s history in Texas, spending considerable time on the substantial architectural career of Barthelme’s father, also named Donald. The biographer then glances at young Don’s childhood and early manhood, noting numerous Oedipal conflicts that would crop up again. He points to the influences of Thurber and Perelman and the New Yorker, which later gave Barthelme his biggest break and most frequent exposure—though fiction editor Roger Angell never let his championship of the writer keep him from rejecting work he considered inferior. Daugherty usefully explores his subject’s considerable background and expertise in the visual arts; Barthelme managed a Houston museum for a time and worked on an art magazine in New York. Married three times, he remained on genial terms with wives one and two, sired two daughters and loved women till throat cancer ended it all. He drank a lot too, and his biographer seems to see booze more as a creative lubricant than a smiling but bitter enemy. Barthelme enjoyed positive reviews until near the end of his life, when he left New York and returned to teach at the University of Houston, where the author avers he was treated as the great celebrity he indeed was in the literary world. Daugherty loves Barthelme’s fiction, seldom uttering a discouraging word, and views his subject with affectionate, grateful eyes.
Uses a spatula to apply icing rather than a blade to slice and reveal.