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Barthelmania

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The workers kept assembling the review. Little by little they chiseled and joined its necessary parts: the introduction, the name-dropping (Borges, Calvino, Gaddis), the ironic twist (“Barthelme’s career, which was built out of stories that refused to end tidily, has now found a tidy end”). They taxonomized Flying to America’s Barthelmanian treasures: three previously unpublished stories, one of which he was working on at his death; his first published story (1959); the winning entry of a contest in which the author asked readers to finish a story of which he’d written the first three paragraphs; and a bunch of masterful work from The New Yorker. Some of the early material was purely educational, an opportunity to watch a young genius feeling for the proper ratio of his signature components—oddity, normalcy, aphorisms, non sequiturs, cliché, jargon, lyricism. (“Every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred,” he wrote. “What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful.”) But some of these stories—“Flying to America,” “Three,” “Tickets”—were among his very best.

Midway through the review, my laborers began to giggle savagely, causing the native page-turners to buck and sway beneath them.

“My emoticonsciousness is LOLing,” said Honoré de Balzac.

“Totes,” said the vice-president of the United States.

The phone in the command module kept ringing. My mother called to recount in great detail the plot of a film called The Toxic Avenger. My wife called to say that birds, whole flocks of them, had finally discovered the feeder in our kitchen window. My sister shouted into the receiver that she had recently adopted multiple cats. In the distance I heard the trumpets of warring parties from rival book-review sections, advancing upon us to steal the golden nectar of our methods and opinions. I knew that by the time they arrived our blurb would be fully mature, and that it would smite them handily. I do not know to which country the native boys are native. My book-review factory was not in Cleveland.

Flying to America
By Donald Barthelme. Shoemaker & Hoard. 432 pages. $26.


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