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40-May-June-2009
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A Biography of Donald Barthelme

A-Hiding ManA former student of Donald Barthelme’s—who is now a novelist and professor at Oregon State University—crafts an affectionate but honest biography of the late, postmodern writer.

The Topic: When Donald Barthelme died in 1989 at the age of 58, he left behind a body of work that ranked him with Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, and John Barth as among the most influential postmodern writers of the 1960s and 1970s. Hiding Man examines Barthelme’s tumultuous personal life—including his travails in marriage, money, and alcohol—from his childhood as the son of a prominent Houston architect, to his productive years in New York, and finally to his return to Houston after decades of drinking. A mainstay at the New Yorker for most of his career, Barthelme created iconoclastic, challenging stories that upended traditional notions of form and style. Hiding Man also analyzes Barthelme’s fiction and considers the diverse artistic and cultural influences—ranging from Samuel Beckett to jazz—that contributed to his work.
St. Martin’s Press. 581 pages. $35. ISBN: 0312378688

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"No recent book about a contemporary writer has been more necessary, or welcome, than Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man, the first comprehensive biography of the late Houstonian Donald Barthelme. … That his fiction is not so well known now is largely a consequence of its difficulty: It is often somewhat absurd, typically devoid of plot, full of esoteric allusions to history, literature (Woyzeck, Husserl), current events and his life." Edward Nawotka

New Yorker 4 of 5 Stars
"The biography is … part homage to a teacher, and although one does not suspect that a lot of warts have been omitted from the portrait, the book gazes upon its subject with consistent admiration and affection." Louis Menand

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Even with such exhaustive attention paid to his cultural foundations, Barthelme, in all his complexity, is the star of Hiding Man, a remarkably tender, sympathetic treatment—Daugherty refers to Barthelme as ‘Don’ throughout, setting a tone of familiarity and accessibility apparently felt by all who knew him. … [It] would be wrong to assume that Daugherty’s obvious affection and admiration of his subject would reduce Hiding Man to the realm of hagiography." Marc Covert

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"[Hiding Man] is an intimate, probing, meticulous, deeply considered account of the life, filled with vivid characters and their witty talk, convincing insights into the writer’s process, tension, and the flavor of its subject’s often difficult personal life. … Framed by Daugherty’s recollections of his own encounters with Barthelme, Hiding Man manages to be emotionally as well as intellectually satisfying." Floyd Skloot

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"All dead authors should be so lucky. … Like a knowledgeable curator, Daugherty walks us through Barthelme’s publications book by book, pausing for brilliant explications of the more challenging stories." Steven Moore

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Hiding Man is a frankly admiring literary biography, weighty with literary exegesis and eager to pursue Barthelme’s art to its shuddering core. As respectful as Mr. Daugherty is, though, his book can be gently damning." Kyle Smith

Critical Summary

Critics unanimously applaud Daugherty for the first comprehensive, analytical biography of his former teacher. The Oregonian calls Hiding Man a "remarkably tender, sympathetic treatment" of Barthelme, and while Daugherty may have given Barthelme a glowing biography, he doesn’t downplay his more negative traits. The book also does an excellent job of connecting the writer to his literary and social context. The Oregonian notes that while Barthelme can be difficult to read, "in Daugherty’s hands the stories seem not nearly as challenging as they are inviting," a point echoed by the Washington Post. Readers interested in Barthelme will find an informative, entertaining biography; readers unacquainted with this postmodern giant may wish to start with one of his short story collections.

Further Reading

Sixty Stories | Donald Barthelme (1981): This broad collection represents Barthelme’s best work of the 1960s and 1970s, including "Me and Miss Mandible," "Balloon," and "The Dolt." All the stories chronicle, and often parody, American culture and life while raising questions about the nature of text, history, and storytelling.