Short story lives

A review of Hiding Man by Tracy Daugherty

This year biographies of three important short story writers came out.  Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme appeared in February and Cheever: A Life appeared in March.  A Flannery O'Connor biography just appeared as well; unlike Barthelme and John Cheever, however, I had read quite a few of O'Connor's stories along the way and didn't feel like she was someone I had to catch up on.  But Barthelme and Cheever were two writers I had missed.  My own little reviews that follow may seem limited; if you want a broader take, check out the biographies mentioned above; in addition, AO Scott in the New York Times recently made a good case for these three writers, among others, and the short story in general, and To The Best of Our Knowledge recently featured Cheever and Barthelme.

First up was Barthelme's Sixty Stories.  I can imagine him being one of those writers people either love or hate.  I think it fits to call his stories postmodern. "The Emerald" is about a talking emerald born of a witch who knows a spell for French fries.  In the metafictional "The Balloon" a giant balloon generates a variety of responses from the populace.  "Views of My Father Weeping" is a sort of theme-and-variations combined with a mystery.  Plots, maybe, aren't really Barthelme's thing.  Ideas and language are.  The book abounds with great lines and sharp observations that, despite their unusual or odd context, somehow get at the fundamentals of the human experience.  One of my favorites is the faux-travelogue "Paraguay" which is not about any Paraguay that actually exists.  In Barthelme's Paraguay, "temperature controls activity to a remarkable degree," and differently for men and women, silence is sold in paper sacks, and everyone has the same fingerprints.  A field of red snow "invites contemplation and walking about in," which I think is something most good stories-and most of Barthelme's stories-do.

Though roughly contemporary with Barthelme, Cheever's stories are very different, focusing almost entirely on suburban New Yorkers.  Before reading Cheever I had been reading Charles Bukowski and Aimee Bender, so his style seemed a bit stiff.  I ambitiously lugged home the thousand-plus pages of the Library of America edition, but then felt daunted.  I decided to read just the eight stories mentioned on the dust jacket first.  Of those, "Goodbye, My Brother" and "The Swimmer" were both excellent, but, while I think of Barthelme as a kindred spirt, Cheever remained too upper-class, or too East Coast, perhaps, for me to get into any deeper.