An enjoyable, informative and interesting literary biography about a writer who was among my favorites in college. Barthelme’s work is always challenging, undeniably “serious” literature, yet it’s almost always fun and entertaining to read. Here the biographer gives us what feels like a complete and honest portrait of a man who was brilliant yet self-defeating, and both selfish and generous. Having read this, I feel less sure I would have liked Donald Barthelme personally had I met him, yet my respect for his work and its impact on the development of American literature are only strengthened.
Because Barthelme’s life and career were cut short (it shouldn’t be a “spoiler” to anyone interested in this book if I say he died of cancer in his fifties) this biography dwells mostly on his formative years and the build-up in his career to where he began to have some success and recognition. Many biographies of artists provide a lot of background about parents and the subject’s environment as a child without this information having much relevance to what the artist eventually became. In this case, though, Daugherty gives us information about the home Barthelme grew up in, and the aesthetic philosophies and architectural work of his father, which help clarify where Donald Barthelme the developing writer came up with his daring, modernist approach.
This book is overall quite successful in what it tries to accomplish. This is essential reading for any serious fan of Barthelme or even modernist American literature, and if you’re interested in American fiction from after mid-century, you’ll probably find much to enjoy here as well. Rated 4 out of 5 stars.