Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme by Tracy Daugherty
(St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 592 pp. Hardcover $29.95
Daugherty’s Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme ranks with Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw’s exhaustive life history of William S. Burroughs and Maynard Mack’s AlexanderPope: A Life as one of the best all-inclusive stories about a writing life. Few literary biographers leave the reader with the sense of intimacy, compassion, and understanding of the topic as Daugherty does. Daugherty, with diligence and empathy, mines the depths of the hiding man persona within Donald Barthelme and reveals the real Don B.-the three-time timid husband, the caring teacher, the shadowed and respectful son, the lifelong student, and the doting Father. The Olympian climb of Hiding Man and Barthelme’s life is as beautiful and interesting as it is erudite and consuming. Daugherty’s work reminds of us of the fragility of sustained genius but he also gives us Don B. as a person with the same fears, hopes, insecurities, and aspirations as each of us. When I finished reading Hiding Man, I closed the book, laid it on my chest, and thought, “So, that’s what made Donald Barthelme click.”
Daugherty weaves the story of Barthelme’s life while remaining true to the facts and experiences that shaped the Barthelme short stories and novels. Daugherty leaps back and forth in Barthelme’s lifetime to reiterate or highlight the experiences that reflect themselves in Barthelme’s fiction. Not since Virginia Woolf’s fictional biography Orlando has an enigmatic and complex character such as Barthelme been portrayed with such honesty and palate-enticing prose. Artfully narrative, Hiding Man reads more like a novel than a straightforward biography. The narrative prose kept me though starved for sleep pleading, “Just one more chapter.”
On the journey, Daugherty takes us deep into the steamy bayous of Texas where it all started and breaks down Barthelme’s intellectual struggle to escape the shadows cast by his overbearing, yet well-intentioned, father. Daugherty follows Don B. from obscurity to his rise as Father of the Post-Modern. In between, we see all the intimate family holidays and conversations of the family Barthelme where “a number of men [were] competing for the attention of a single woman.” (27) Daugherty deconstructs the complexities of the Barthelme family’s relations and reconstructs the influence of Barthelme’s real-life, modern day extension of the Snow White myth that bore the narrative fruits of Barthelme’s Freudian themed stories. Daugherty explains Barthelme’s use of Freudian literary theory in everyday terms and juxtaposes the theory with the stories they inspired in the Barthelme canon, all the while, keeping Barthelme’s humor, wit, and intelligence intact.
With Barthelme, we be-bop through the syncopation and energy-infused jazz scenes that played an integral role in the rhythm and rhyme of his works. We follow Barthelme through the humid streets and alleyways of Houston’s burgeoning jazz scene to the cool, neon filled streets of NYC where Barthelme discovers his artist inspiration and falls into the raging jazz, literary, and art scenes of NYC’s intellectual elite. In the smoky bars of Greenwich Village and Times Square and the alcohol-laced studio of Elaine de Koonig, Barthelme learned “something about making a statement” and “about placing emphases within a statement or introducing variations…[taking] an old tired tune…th century.
Daugherty’s work’s importance though lies in the illumination of Barthelme’s reworking of the novel’s convention. Barthelme, the cultural terrorist, admitted he was smuggling “hostile object[s]” into readers’ hands with the aim of reviving “outmoded forms” and “celebrating life.” (225) Barthelme held to the conviction that the traditional novel such as Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March was a “doomed tower.” (225) The competitive animosity Barthelme felt towards Bellow’s writing and Barthelme’s first encounter with the stagnation and apathy of the literary establishment of the 50’s and 60’s at a Wagner College summer writing institute sparked the development of Barthelme’s unique and penetrating style. The Bellow incident, portrayed beautifully in Hiding Man, hardened Barthelme’s commitment to expanding the possibilities of prose fiction and strengthened him for the battles over form and punctuation his work would endure with his future New Yorker editor, friend, and mentor, Roger Angell. The New Republic’s reviewer Richard Gilman summarizes it best when he described Barthelme as one of a “handful of American writers who are working to replenish and extend the art of fiction instead of trying to add to the stock of entertainments.” (299)
For any young writer answering the call of the Shakespeare Squad, Hiding Man is a necessary read. Barthelme’s climb from cub reporter at the Houston Chronicle to his peak of prosperity and frustration with the New Yorker is a writer’s road map to success. The consternation with and search for perfection Barthelme demanded in his work and the subsequent creative rejuvenation he found as head of the University of Houston’s creative writing program is an inspiration. Barthelme’s devotion to constant revisions, his reverence of the entire canon of Western philosophy, and his struggles to rewrite the constraints of the novel by experimenting with traditional punctuation and conventional form are Don B.’s way of preserving and forwarding the heritage of the literary novel and passing his knowledge on to those that follow him.
As Daugherty closes Hiding Man on Don B.’s tragic, too short life, Barthelme boards a plane for Houston in an Oregonian blizzard imploring Daugherty “to write a story about a genius.” If one listens to Daugherty’s words closely, one can almost hear the dying Father ask, “Did I do it well?”
“Yes, marvelously well,” we say. “Superbly. We will never see it done better.”