Sixty-three rare or previously uncollected works by a master of the American short story form
*A hypothetical episode of Batman hilariously slowed down to soap-opera speed.
*A game of baseball as played by T. S. Eliot and Willem "Big Bull" de Kooning.
*A recipe for feeding sixty pork-sotted celebrants at your daughter's wedding.
*An outlandishly illustrated account of a scientific quest for God.
These astonishing tropes of the imagination could only have been generated by Donald Barthelme, whountil his death in 1989seemed intent on goosing American letters into taking a quantum leap. Gleeful, melancholy, erudite, and wonderfully subversive, The Teachings of Don B. is a literary testament cum time bomb, with the power to blast any reader into an altered state of consciousness.
"A small education in laughter, melancholy, and the English language." The New York Times Book Review
“Barthelme, who died in 1989, was a distinctive master of fragments . . . Anger, wit, extravagant associations and disassociations; these would be less memorable if it were not for Barthelme's ability to evoke dreams and the tenderness with which he does it.” Los Angeles Times
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About the Author
KIM HERZINGER is a critic and fiction writer, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and writer on minimalism and other contemporary literary phenomena. He edited most recently Flying to America: 45 More Stories. He teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Read an Excerpt
THE TEACHINGS OF DON B.: A YANKEE WAY OF KNOWLEDGE
While doing anthropological fieldwork in Manhattan some years ago I met, on West Eleventh Street, a male Yankee of indeterminate age whose name, I was told, was Don B. I found him leaning against a building in a profound torpor — perhaps the profoundest torpor I have ever seen. He was a tallish man with an unconvincing beard and was dressed, in the fashion of the Village, in jeans and a blue work shirt. After we had been introduced, by a mutual acquaintance, I explained to him that I had been told he knew the secrets of certain hallucinogenic substances peculiar to Yankee culture and in which I was professionally interested. I expressed a wish to learn what he knew and asked if I might talk with him about the subject. He simply stared at me without replying, and then said, "No." However, taking note of the dismay which must have been plain on my face, he said that I might return, if I wished, in two years. In the mean-time, he would think about my proposal. Then he closed his eyes again, and I left him.
I returned in the summer of 1968 and found Don B. still leaning against the same building. His torpor was now something very close to outright gloom, but he greeted me civilly enough. Again I asked him if he would consider taking me under instruction. He stared at me for a long time and then said, "Yes." But, he warned me, states of nonordinary reality could not be attained by just anybody, and if just anybody did, by accident, blunder into a state of nonordinary reality, the anybody might bloody well regret it. Yankee culture was a fearsome thing, he told me, and not to be entered into lightly, but only with a prepared heart. Was I willing, he asked, to endure the pain, elation, shock, terror, and boredom of such an experience? Was I, for example, ticklish? I assured him that I was ready and was not ticklish, or not overmuch. He then led me into the building against which he had been leaning. He showed me into a small but poorly furnished apartment containing hundreds of books stacked randomly about. In the center of the room a fire was blazing brightly. Throwing a few more books on the fire, Don B. invited me to be seated, and we had the first of what proved to be a long series of conversations. The following material, reproduced from my field notes, has been edited somewhat to eliminate the dull parts, but in the main reflects accurately what took place during the period when I was Don B.'s apprentice.
In dealing with any system of world interpretation different from our own, it is necessary to make use of the technique of suspended judgment. This I have done, and I urge the reader to do so also.
June 11, 1968
We were sitting cross-legged on the floor of Don B.'s apartment, facing each other, with the fire, which was kept going even in summer, between us. I decided to ask Don B. about the fire, for it was markedly hot in the room.
"Why is the fire burning, Don B.? It's hot in here."
Don B. gazed at me for a time without answering. Then he said: "Fire bums because it is his nature to burn. Fire is a friend. But one must know how to treat him. He contains a thousand invisible brillos which, unleashed, can cause considerable harm to life and property. That is why we have fire engines. The fire engines throw water on Fire and drown the invisible brillos. They fear water."
"What is a brillo, Don B.?"
"A sort of devil who is invisible."
"But why doesn't your fire burn a hole in the floor?"
"Because I understand Fire and know his secrets," Don B. said. "When I was a boy in the city of Philadelphia, Fire seized many houses, shops, and other buildings and burned them to the ground. But he never seized my house because I knew his secrets and he knew I knew his secrets. Therefore he stayed away."
"What are his secrets, Don B.?"
Don B. laughed uproariously.
"You are a fool," he said. "You are not a man of knowledge. Only a man of knowledge can understand secrets. Even if I told you Fire's secrets, they would be of no use to you."
"Can I become a man of knowledge, Don B.?" Don B. fell silent. He stared at his knees for some moments. Then he gave me an intense look.
"Maybe," he said.
I went away filled with a powerful and deep sense of warmth.
June 13, 1968
We were sitting as before on the floor of Don B.'s apartment.
"What is a man of knowledge, Don B.?" I asked him.
"A man of knowledge," Don B. replied, "is one who knows. He not only knows, he knows that he knows. He has an ally to help him know."
"What does the ally do, Don B.?"
"The ally helps the man of knowledge know and also helps him know that he knows."
"Do you have an ally, Don B.?"
"Who is your ally, Don B.?"
"Turkey," he said, and laughed uproariously.
I went away filled with a sensation of not having heard him correctly.
June 17, 1968
I had brought Don B. some food. We sat on the floor eating fettucine on rye in silence. I had noticed that although Don B. as a rule ate very little, whenever there were two sandwiches on the floor he ate both halves of his and half of mine, which I thought a little strange.
Without warning he said: "You feel uncomfortable."
I admitted that I felt a bit uncomfortable.
"I knew that you felt uncomfortable," he said. "That is because you have not found your spot. Move around the room until you have found it."
"How do you mean, move around the room?"
"I mean, like sit in different places."
Don B. rose and left the apartment. I tried sitting in different places. What he had said made no sense to me. True, I had been slightly uncomfortable in the spot I had been sitting in. But no other place in the room seemed any better to me. I sat experimentally in various areas but could discover no spot that felt any better than any other spot. I was sweating and felt more uncomfortable than ever. An hour passed, then two hours. I was sitting as hard as I could, first in one place, then another. But no particular place seemed desirable or special. I wondered where Don B. was. Then I noticed that a particular spot near the south wall was exuding a sort of yellow luminosity. I painfully sat over toward it, sit by sit, a process which consumed some twelve minutes. Yes! It was true. In the spot occupied by the yellow luminosity I felt much more comfortable than I had felt in my original spot. The door opened and Don B. entered, smiling.
"Where have you been, Don B.?"
"I caught a flick. I see that you have found your spot."
"You were right, Don B. This spot is much better than my old spot."
"Of course. You were sitting too close to the fire, idiot."
"But Don B.! What is this yellow luminosity that seems to hover over this particular spot?"
"It's the lamp, dummy."
I looked up. Don B. was right. Immediately above my new spot was a light fixture containing two 150-watt bulbs. It was turned on.
I went away filled with a powerful sensation having to do with electricity.
June 13, 1968
Once again I had asked Don B. about the famous hallucinogenic substances used by the Yankees.
Without replying, he carefully placed another book on the fire. It was Elias Ashmole's Theatrum chemicum Britannicum.
"When I sneeze, the earth shakes," Don B. said, after a time.
I greeted this announcement with a certain amount of skepticism.
"Show me, Don B.," I said.
"The man of knowledge does not sneeze on command," he said. "He sneezes only when it is appropriate and right to do so, that is, when his brillo is inside his nose, tickling him."
"When is it appropriate and right to sneeze, Don B.?"
"It is appropriate and right to sneeze when your brillo is inside your nose, tickling it."
"Does each man have his own personal brillo, Don B.?"
"The man of knowledge both has a brillo and is a brillo. That is why he is able to sneeze so powerfully that when he sneezes, the earth shakes. Brillo is nose, arms, legs, liver — the whole shebang."
"But you said a brillo was a devil, Don B."
"Some people like devils."
"How does the man of knowledge find his personal brillo, Don B.?"
"Through the use of certain hallucinogenic substances peculiar to Yankee culture," Don B. said.
"Can I try them?"
Don B. gazed at me for a long time — an intense gaze. Then he said: "Maybe."
I departed with a strong sense of epistemological obfuscation.
June 20, 1968
"The four natural enemies of the man of knowledge," Don B. said to me, "are fear, sleep, sex, and the Internal Revenue Service."
I listened attentively.
"Before one can become a man of knowledge one must conquer all of these."
"Have you conquered the four natural enemies of the man of knowledge, Don B.?"
"All but the last," he said with a grimace. "Those sumbitches never give up."
"How does one conquer fear, Don B.?"
"One takes a frog and sews it to one's shoe," he said.
"The right or the left?"
Don B. gave me a pitying look.
"Well, you'd look mighty funny going down the street with only one frog sewed to your shoes, wouldn't you?" he said. "One frog on each shoe."
"How does having frogs sewed to your shoes help one conquer fear, Don B.?"
But Don B. had fallen asleep. I was torn inside. My most deeply held values, such as being kind to frogs, had been placed in question. I really did want to become a man of knowledge. But at such a cost?
June 21, 1968
Today Don B. looked at me for a long time. His gaze, usually so piercing, was suffused with a sort of wet irony.
"Xavier," he said, "there is something about you I like. I think it's your credulity. Belief is very important if one wishes to become a man of knowledge — to truly 'see.' I think you might possibly be able to 'see' someday. But 'seeing' is very difficult. Only after the most arduous preparation of the heart will you be able to 'see.' Even though you are not a Yankee, it may be that you will be able to prepare your heart adequately. I don't know. I'm not guaranteeing anything."
"How does one prepare the heart, Don B.?"
"One cleanses it with either a yellow warmth or a pink luminosity. I don't know which is right in your case. It varies with the individual. Each man must choose. So we will try both. But I must warn you that the experience is dangerous and sticky. Your life may hang on how you behave in the next hour. You must do everything exactly as I tell you. This isn't kid stuff, buddy."
I was filled with a sense of awe and dread. Could I, a Western man, enter into the darkest mysteries of the Yankees without putting myself and my most deeply held convictions in peril? A profound sadness overtook me, followed by an indescribable anguish. I suppressed them.
"All right, Don B.," I said. "If you really think I'm ready."
Don B. then rose and went to a cupboard. He opened it and removed two vessels which he placed on the floor, near the fire. He opened a second cupboard and produced two ordinary drinking glasses, which he also placed on the floor. Then he went into another room, returning with a sort of crock with a lid on it, a small round yellow object, and a knife. All of these he placed on the floor near the fire. He knelt alongside them and began a strange, rather eerie chant. I could not make out all of the words, but they included town, pony, and feather. I wondered if I was supposed to chant too, but dared not interrupt him to ask. I began chanting, tentatively, "town-pony-feather."
Abruptly, Don B. stopped chanting and began whittling at the small yellow object. Was it this, I wondered, that generated the "yellow warmth" he had spoken of? Soon there was a small pile of yellow-white chips before him. He then reached for one of the vessels he had taken from the cupboard and poured a colorless liquid, perhaps four ounces of it, into each of the drinking glasses. Then he crossed his eyes and sat with his eyes crossed for some moments. I crossed my eyes also. We sat thus for four minutes, our gazes missing each other but meeting, I felt, somewhere in the neutral space on either side of us. The sensation was strange, eerie.
Don B. uncrossed his eyes, blinked, smiled at me.
He reached for the second vessel and poured a second colorless liquid into each glass, but much less of it: about half an ounce per glass, I estimated. He then removed the top of the crock and took from it six small colorless objects, each perhaps an inch and one-half square, placing three of them in each glass. Next he picked up one of the yellow-white chips and rubbed it around the rim of each glass. Then he stirred the mixtures with his index finger and handed me a glass.
"Drink it down without stopping," he said, "for if you pause in the drinking of it the brillo which it summons, your personal brillo, will not appear. And the whole thing will be a bloody goddamn fiasco."
I did as Don B. bade me, and drained the glass in one gulp. Immediately a horrible trembling convulsed my limbs, while an overwhelming nausea retracted my brain. I flopped around on the floor a lot. I became aware of (left to right) a profound sadness, a yellow warmth, an indescribable anguish, and a pink luminosity. Don B. was watching me with a scornful smile on his face. I was sweating, my stomach was cramping, and I needed a cigarette. I saw, on my left, the profound sadness merging with the yellow warmth, and on my right, the indescribable anguish intermingling with the pink luminosity, and, suddenly, standing with one foot on the profound sadness/yellow warmth and the other on the indescribable anguish/pink luminosity, a gigantic figure half-human, half-animal, and a hundred feet tall (roughly). A truly monstrous thing! Never in the wildest fantasies of fiction had I encountered anything like it. I looked at it in complete, utter bewilderment. It was strange and eerie, and yet familiar. Then I realized with a shock of horror, terror, and eeriness that it was a colossal Publisher, and that it was moving toward me, wanted something from me. I fainted. When I revived, it took me to lunch at Lutèce and we settled on an advance in the low fifties, which I accepted even though I knew I was not yet, in the truest sense, a man of knowledge. But there would be other books, I reflected, to become a man of knowledge in, and if I got stuck I could always go back and see good old Don B.
I WROTE A LETTER ...
I wrote a letter to the President of the moon, asked him if they had towaway zones up there. The cops had towed away my Honda and I didn't like it. Cost me seventy-five dollars to get it back, plus the mental health. You ever notice how the tow trucks pick on little tiny cars? You ever seen them hauling off a Chrysler Imperial? No, you haven't.
The President of the moon replied most courteously that the moon had no towaway zones whatsoever. Mental health on the moon, he added, cost only a dollar.
Well, I needed mental health real bad that week, so I wrote back saying I thought I could get there by the spring of '81, if the space shuttle fulfilled its porcelain promise, and to keep some mental health warm for me who needed it, and could I interest him in a bucket of ribs in red sauce? Which I would gladly carry on up there to him if he wished?
The President of the moon wrote back that he would be delighted to have a bucket of ribs in red sauce, and that his zip code, if I needed it, was 10011000000000.
I cabled him that I'd bring some six-packs of Rolling Rock beer to drink with the ribs in red sauce, and, by the way, what was the apartment situation up there?
It was bad, he replied by platitudinum plate, apartments were running about a dollar a year, he knew that was high but what could he do? These were four-bedroom apartments, he said, with three baths, library, billiard room, root cellar, and terrace over-looking the Sea of Prosperity. Maybe he could get me a rent abatement, he said, 'cause of me being a friend of the moon.
The moon began to sound like a pretty nice place. I sent a dollar to the Space Shuttle Hurry-Up Fund.
Drumming fiercely on a hollow log with a longitudinal slit tuned to moon frequencies, I asked him about employment, medical coverage, retirement benefits, tax shelterage, convenience cards, and Christmas Club accounts.
That's a roger, he moonbeamed back, a dollar covers it all, and if you don't have a dollar we'll lend you a dollar through the Greater Moon Development Mechanism.
What about war and peace? I inquired by means of curly little ALGOL circuits I had knitted myself on my Apple computer.
The President of the moon answered (by MIRV'd metaphor) that ticktacktoe was about as far as they'd got in that direction, and about as far as they would go, if he had anything to say about it.
I told him via flights of angels with special instructions that it looked to me like he had things pretty well in hand up there and would he by any chance consider being President of us? Part-time if need be?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Teachings of Don B."
Copyright © 1992 The Estate of Donald Barthelme.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface by Kim Herzinger,
SATIRES, PARODIES, FABLES, AND ILLUSTRATED STORIES,
The Teachings of Don B.: A Yankee Way of Knowledge,
I wrote a letter ...,
Three Great Meals,
Languishing, half-deep in summer ...,
Mr. Foolfarm's Journal,
The Joker's Greatest Triumph,
I was gratified this week ...,
When I didn't win ...,
At last, it is time ...,
The Art of Baseball,
Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said,
An Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware,
I have for some time ...,
The Great Debate,
Donald Barthelme's Fine Homemade Soups,
The Angry Young Man,
I am, at the moment ...,
Now that I am older ...,
Speaking of the human body ...,
A woman seated on a plain wooden chair ...,
That guy in the back room ...,
They called for more structure ...,
A Nation of Wheels,
Kissing the President,
And Now Let's Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!,
Many have remarked ...,
The Young Visitirs,
My lover said to me ...,
That Cosmopolitan Girl,
The Story Thus Far:,
Bunny Image, Loss of: The Case of Bitsy S.,
Two Hours to Curtain,
The Royal Treatment,
The Educational Experience,
We dropped in at the Stanhope ...,
Well we all had our Willie & Wade records ...,
Down the Line with the Annual,
The Dassaud Prize,
The Friends of the Family,
What People are Saying About This
"One of the great citizens of contemporary world letters."
Bathelme happens to be one of a handful of American authors, there to make the rest of us look bad, who instinctively know how to stash the merchandise, bambuzzel the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on pass the checkpoints of dayligh's 'reality.'
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The consensus on Barthelme is that he launched the postmodern short-story form in the US. A very thoughtful review by James Wolcott ("Booforum," February / March 2008, pp. 9-10), sums it up very well: "Today, I would hazard... the track marks of Barthelme's suave, subversive cunning are to be found less in postmod fiction -- although David Foster Wallace's dense foliage of footnotes suggests a Bathelmean undergrowth and George Saunders's arcade surrealism has a runaway-nephew quality -- than in the conscientiously oddball, studiedly offhand, hiply recherché, mock-anachronistic formalism of 'McSweeney's,' 'The Believer,' 'The Crier,' and related organs of articulate mumblecore." I would add three things: 1. The current generation of young MFA writing program candidates see the 'McSweeney's' option as one of their main goals. So in that sense, Barthelme is a ubiquitous influence. 2. Dave Hickey, the art critic, is a spiritual child of Barthelme's; and Hickey's kind of art criticism is increasingly influential. (I go into this in my pamphlet, "What Happened to Art Criticism?") 3. George Saunders's essay on Barthelme, in "The Brain-Dead Megaphone," is the best thing written on Barthelme, if you're looking for a guide. So it's indisputable that Barthelme is part of the history of postwar American writing. But is he someone to read now? Reading this collection, I was struck by just how much of it has lost its shine. There are hilarious pieces, and sometimes the wit is as sharp as it seemed in the 1970s. But Barthelme's liberal politics are really very predictable -- as easily predictable as his quips are surprising. And his absurdism has always been a safe version of real absurdism. If you're interested in surrealist or absurdist shock, read Raymond Roussel, or Daniil Kharms (who has been praised by George Saunders, in the "New York Times Book Review.") As Wolcott points out, the entire New Fiction movement was subjected to a typically devastating critique by Gore Vidal ("American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction") in 1976; Vidal thought the movement, including Pynchon, was contrived and derivative of french experimental fiction. I'd rather trace it to Russian and central European absurdist literature and surrealism, but the significance is the same: Barthelme is watered-down, domesticated, playful, harmless absurdism. Never too angry, seldom directly polemic, never despairing. (That would be gauche, of course.) After a few days reading Barthelme, the happiness of seeing plodding seriousness exploded continuously and brilliantly right in my face when I least expected it but really not-so-secretly expected it all along pales, and I begin to wish for some real pain, and laughter that doesn't come with a little grimace of acknowledged artifice or complicity, or an unnatural heave.
I recently read a great short story by Donald Barthelme, "Cortes and Montezuma", online, and it reminded me how much I had enjoyed his short stories when I first encountered them in my twenties. Looking to reacquaint myself with his work, I picked up this miscellany. There is some really good stuff in here, such as the title story; subtitled "A Yankee Way of Knowledge", it's a dead-on parody of Carlos Castaneda. I loved the subtle shifts in tone of "The Joker's Greatest Triumph" as well.But a lot of the material in this book had been uncollected elsewhere, and it shows in parodies that are too obvious and little illustrated stories that reminded me of Spike Milligan's lesser work.I still love Barthelme's fiction, and I'm going to hunt down a copy of one of the classic short story collections, like "Forty Stories", but this isn't the book I'd recommend to those starting out to discover his work.