Friday, August 8, 2008

Books: And He Tells the Little Horse the Whole Story, by Steve Barthelme

Is this really Mr. Barthelme's only book of short stories? Brother of the much more known Donald Barthelme, also a short story writer, Steve, even if far less prolific, writes stories that cut much closer to the quick than the effete, hyper-intellectual experiments of his brother. Adultery is a common theme, along with the relationship on the skids, as are loneliness and isolation. His stories, closer in tone to Raymond Carver's than his brothers, start in the middle and end and the end, with neither bangs nor whimpers, just a kind of quiet, slow burn, like a still-smoking cigarette butt on the pavement.

It was a surprise for me to see that this book received a pretty chilly review from the New York Times when it came out in 1987. Despite my strong affinity for the rampant post-modernism of 1980s literature (of which Donald Barthelme is a kind of hallmark), I do believe it's an equal if not greater achievement to write clean, direct, feeling prose about human emotions without tending toward the soppy, the sentimental, the melodramatic. Barthelme here manages to keep his cool without being detached, so that, in a story like Beach (my favorite of the bunch), a small incident illuminates a larger crisis, crystallizes our fears, needs, desires. A few stories do dabble in Donald-style experiment; The Friend, a stream-of-consciousness bit from the point of view of a rapist, fails, but Failing All Else, a description of a metaphoric dream featuring a beautiful woman, dancing bears, and cargo ship heavy with gold, told over a parade of desserts in a diner, outstrips most of the older brother's oddball narratives.

I wish he would write some more.

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