Delicate Relations to the Real: Walking Donald Barthelme’s Houston

By Robert CreminsAugust 10, 2017

Delicate Relations to the Real: Walking Donald Barthelme’s Houston
THE UNITED STATES IS only beginning to get to know its fourth largest city, Houston. Recent attention from the Los Angeles Times and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown has highlighted H-Town’s diversity and nuance, and helped scrape away the crust of oil-and-sprawl clichés. But Houston still has a long way to go until it’s known in the way New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago is known.

I’d like to nudge that process along an inch or two by describing what I call “the Barthelme Triangle.” That shape reveals itself when you map out a “pedestrian loop” proposed by Donald Barthelme — better known as a literary pathfinder — 30 years ago. In 1987, two years before his untimely death at the age of 58, Barthelme outlined his plan in “Synergy,” a conference paper he delivered at the University of Houston, where since 1981 he had been a transformational teacher in the creative writing program.

By the late ’80s Barthelme had been an established New York cultural figure for a quarter of a century; he still had an apartment in Manhattan, but spent the school year back in his hometown. Unsurprisingly then, it’s Houston that’s on his mind in “Synergy.” His civic imagination firing on all cylinders (including at least one ironic cylinder), Barthelme proposes a Ramblas-like loop that takes in some of Houston’s best-known (to locals) streets and sights.

We can begin the 3.5-mile tour at the Museum of Fine Arts, specifically the older building’s great steel-and-glass curving extension, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. And at this starting point we are also at one of the writer’s starting points; Barthelme’s architect father, Donald Sr., was an evangelist of the modern aesthetic gospel. He built what his son described as “a very beautiful house, somewhat similar to Mies’s Tugendhat house” for what was eventually a family of seven. The little international-style house on the prairie was a cultural hothouse in which Don Jr. thrived, but sometimes languished. His father was a source of both inspiration and intimidation; the boy seems to have had a more easygoing relationship with his witty, literary-minded mother, Helen. The eldest child of the clan would have to leave Houston before he became the Donald Barthelme.

As we turn onto Montrose Boulevard, we pass the distinctive ribbed stainless steel facade of the Contemporary Arts Museum. The present location and building, designed by Latvian architect Gunnar Birkerts, date from the early ’70s. A previous incarnation of the CAM played a vital role in launching Barthelme from Houston. In 1961, at the age of 30, he became director of the museum; this was the most impressive bullet-point to date on a resume of cultural roles that also included philosophy student, arts journalist, and magazine editor. He had also done a hitch in the army, serving in post-truce Korea, during his busy 1950s.

In the fall of 1962, Barthelme was able to parlay his aesthetic credentials into a job in New York, working with art mandarins Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg on the short-lived Location magazine. Location folded, but Barthelme flourished. The audacious stories that he’d begun to write in Houston soon made him a fixture at another, less ephemeral magazine: The New Yorker. But how had Barthelme made this leap into fiction? The answer lies further along the Triangle.

Before we reach that point, however, there’s a lot more to see. After crossing the bridge over Highway 59 and going past Richmond Avenue we discover more architectural gold: the University of St. Thomas, which features early and late work by another Miesian herald, Philip Johnson. It was the powerhouse arts patrons John and Dominique de Menil who had brought Johnson to Houston, and just behind St. Thomas you’ll find their greatest contribution to the city, the Menil campus. In this green and pleasant space (John Updike called the environs “bosky”), you can visit what Edward Hirsch, in his poem “To Houston,” refers to as the “modernist temples”: the contemplative Rothko Chapel and the sublime Renzo Piano building, which houses the main part of the Menil Collection and was brand new when Barthelme wrote “Synergy.” The Menils were devoted to the surrealists, as was Barthelme himself.

Turning right off Montrose, we’re onto the second side of the Triangle: Westheimer as it runs east into midtown and becomes Elgin. Barthelme relished Westheimer for its glorious garishness; today, while you still pass funky patches, it’s no longer the neon wilderness it was in his day. Tonier restaurants are not the only new features on the street. Crossing Taft, we see the paint-barely-dry Pride crosswalks, a reminder that the Montrose area has for decades been the heart of Houston’s gay community. In her atmospheric memoir, The Genesis of a Cool Sound, the late Helen Moore Barthelme, Don’s second wife, recalls the closeted epoch “[i]n the late 1950s and into the 1960s,” when many creative professionals “lived discreet homosexual lives there.” By the ’70s, the community was a lot more open.

After Bagby we’re on Elgin, and in midtown proper. Half a dozen blocks later, we turn onto the Triangle’s final side: “the stretch of Main Street between Elgin and Binz” that Barthelme, back in ’87, characterized as “a dismal parade of small, faltering businesses.” His distress at that distress is understandable. In the ’50s, when he was a wunderkind-about-town, the street had been in much better shape. Indeed, it had been his unlikely Road to Damascus. We’re getting to the place where he fell off his horse …

Undoubtedly, Barthelme would be pleased, maybe even quietly delighted — he was not an effusive man — to see that the revitalization he envisioned 30 years ago is actually happening. Metro trains glide up and down the broad street, with its neat esplanade. New apartment buildings signal the emergence of a new cosmopolitan community. And there on the right is MATCH — the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston — a performance and display hub with an elegant modernist aesthetic.

Among the organizations that call MATCH home is The Catastrophic Theatre, a company that doesn’t so much undermine as explode preconceived notions of Houston culture. I got to know their work a few years ago through co-founder Jason Nodler’s meticulous productions of Beckett’s Godot and Endgame. This spring Catastrophic created some serendipitous magic in the Triangle when it presented the world premiere of Snow White, a show based on Barthelme’s 1967 debut novel. The book is itself a prankster retelling, by turns merry and melancholic, of the old Grimm-and-Disney fairy tale. One of those Beckettian actors, Greg Dean, directed the play.

The performance script was a labor of love that Dean had worked on intermittently since the late ’90s. It was a synthesis of the source material, a published mid-’70s version of Barthelme’s own draft adaptation, and his annotated manuscript, supplied by the Barthelme estate. Dean completed Barthelme’s vision by adding musical numbers, tongue-in-cheek show-stoppers with choreography by Catastrophic’s other co-founder, Tamarie Cooper. Seeing the ensemble cast acting out the swift train of scenes on Ryan McGettigan’s expressionist set was like getting glimpses inside a giant head from one of the illustrated riffs in Forty Stories (1987).

Dramatizations of Barthelme’s work are relatively rare, so it’s easy to forget that, in terms of his own artistic formation, the play was the thing. And the playwright was Samuel Beckett. And Don first met Sam just a few blocks further down Main Street.

It happened in August 1956. Twenty-five-year-old Don Jr. was back at the University of Houston after his stint in the army, taking classes, working on staff, trying to define himself as a writer. What was going on in the world that month? The Suez Crisis dominated the headlines. McCarthyism was on the wane, the Civil Rights movement on the rise. And the presidential campaign, involving Richard Nixon, was … unrecognizably civil.

Here’s news that would have shocked Barthelme: “8 Killed in 2 L.I. Auto Crashes; Jackson Pollock Among Victims: Technique Was Unorthodox.” In interviews, Barthelme was quick to acknowledge the huge influence of contemporary art on his own unorthodox technique: “Painters, especially American painters since the Second World War, have been much more troubled, beset by formal perplexity, than American writers. They’ve been a laboratory for everybody.” In his busy prose laboratory, Barthelme would cook up sentences that, like Pollock’s splattery arabesques, were sights in themselves; he refused to be constrained by any buttoned-down mode of representation. “What I’m trying to suggest is,” the narrator of “The Abduction From the Seraglio” says of the heroine Constanze, “she’s in a delicate relation to the real.” So too was Barthelme’s work.

In the lesser headlines from that fateful month, you can hear reality’s minor-key siren song: “AN AMERICAN BUYS THE LAKES OF KILLARNEY”; “DUTCH ROYAL PAIR END THEIR DISCORD Queen to Drop the Occult Group”; “PLAN TO SAVE ART FROM WAR BEGINS.” In the signature stories Barthelme began writing just a few years later, a millionaire would buy Galveston, Texas; a king would yearn for his supernatural wife; and artist Paul Klee would “misplace” a military plane.

But in August 1956, young Don Barthelme was still looking for the key that would let him into his customized prose lab. He found it on the shelves at Guy’s News Stand. Guy’s was a quirky, beloved store that operated out of various Main Street locations during its 60-plus years in existence (it closed for good in 1999). Back in ’56 it was at Truxillo and Main. In Hiding Man, Barthelme biographer Tracy Daugherty describes the Pauline moment: “Among the German and French cinema journals, Don found a copy of Theatre Arts. In it was Waiting for Godot. He stood there and read the whole thing.”

Barthelme had probably heard of the play before he picked up the magazine, as even the title of Alan Levy’s introductory essay, “The Long Wait for Godot,” indicates that buzz, including sold-out hardback and paperback editions of the play, had been building on the American side of the Atlantic for some time. Perhaps Barthelme skipped the introduction and went straight to the play. There are, however, some gems of reportage in the piece. Before holding its own during a spring run on Broadway, the play had bombed at the start of the year in Florida. It had been disastrously marketed, producer Michael Myerberg admitted, to the wealthy snowbird set as “the laugh hit of four continents.” The pearls-and-cufflinks crowd did not stick around to confirm Vivian Mercier’s witty formulation that Godot is the work in which “nothing happens, twice.” Levy writes, “For two weeks Miami cabbies referred to the Coconut Grove Playhouse as the place where they picked up their fares after the first act.”

But in Houston Waiting for Godot was a hit — at least at Guy’s News Stand. In her indispensable account of that afternoon’s alchemy, Helen Moore tells us that Barthelme “was deeply moved and ecstatic about the language and the author’s ironical and tragicomic stance.” There must have been particular high points during that first, Damascene reading. I wonder if the former Catholic schoolboy raised his eyebrows in scandalized delight when Estragon interrupts Vladimir’s talk of “our Saviour” to ask, “Our what?” (An exchange in the 1975 novel The Dead Father: “You weren’t raised in the faith? Yes I mean I was but I busted out.”)

As Louis Menand put it succinctly in The New Yorker, Barthelme’s home-away-from-Houston, “Beckett was the writer who made Barthelme feel that it was all right to write like Donald Barthelme.” That issue of Theatre Arts contained the permission slip that would allow him to bring his delighted (and, admittedly, sometimes confused) readers to unheralded destinations, his destinations: Paraguays of the mind, Glass Mountains of the imagination.

When it came to Beckett’s influence, Barthelme came to a fork in the road and, in the best American wisecracking tradition, took it. While he remained an avid Beckett reader (the Irishman, quarter of a century his senior, outlived him by six months), the signs were there from early on that he would never be a pale imitator. One of the solids Donald Sr. did for his teenaged son was to give him a copy of Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism, a volume in the “Documents of Modern Art” series. In his introduction, Harold Rosenberg, Barthelme’s once and future mentor, praises the original English-language “moderns,” the Elizabethans: “They gather up every novelty and run an open bazaar of language, putting space around their words.” Change the pronouns and you have a handy description of Donald Barthelme’s stories. But it hardly applies to Beckett, whose ideal linguistic enterprise would have been a closed shop rather than an open bazaar.

The affinity remained, however, as Edward Hirsch affirmed in the eulogy he delivered for his friend and colleague: “[A]s a tireless investigator of a peculiarly American void, he was our Beckett.” It is a peculiarly American void, which may have deepened in the intervening years. In “Synergy,” Barthelme is more prognosticator than investigator, and not just of urban renewal. Barthelme being Barthelme, this is no conventional conference paper. Plausibly fantastical/fantastically plausible things begin to happen in regards to his pedestrianization scheme. It gathers such momentum that an Art of the Deal–era Trump “flies in from New York” to take charge: “Donald Trump immediately says some nasty things in the newspapers about our good mayor, because that’s the way he’s accustomed to doing business.”

I doubt a revived Barthelme would be shocked to learn of our century’s trolling culture, of the way we have grown accustomed to business being done. But, in response, he might have a proposal to make, a second “Synergy.” For Barthelme, writing itself was a regeneration project. “[He] believed just what Mallarmé believed,” Louis Menand said, “that the purpose of literature is to renew the language of the tribe.” More now than ever, we are in need of that renewal.

In the spirit of “Synergy,” let’s return to where we started. To complete Barthelme’s Triangle, we go another mile down the road from where Guy’s used to be. Past Truxillo, there’s plenty of room for further redevelopment. Things pick up a bit once we’ve gone under 59. Signs for the museum district indicate that we are almost back at the MFA campus. There in the distance is the Mecom Fountain, a refreshing sight on sweltering Houston days, of which the day Barthelme discovered Godot was surely one. Around Southmore Boulevard the surroundings are rather posh again. The wedge of land on our right is a building site right now; by 2019 one of the new structures there will be the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, a magnificent further commitment in Houston to modern and contemporary art. I expect the ghost of Don Barthelme, that civic-minded revenant, to haunt the opening benevolently.


A version of this essay appeared, in an earlier and much shorter form, in the program for The Catastrophic Theatre’s staging of Greg Dean’s adaptation of Barthelme’s Snow White.


Robert Cremins is a writer and lecturer at the University of Houston. He has published two novels, one of which has been highlighted as an LA Times notable novel of the year.

LARB Contributor

Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils. Recent fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review. He teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.


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