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Authors: Donald Barthelme

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Flying to America

BOOK: Flying to America
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Other Books by Donald Barthelme


City Life

Come Back, Dr. Caligari

The Dead Father

Forty Stories

Great Days

Guilty Pleasures

The King

Overnight to Many Distant Cities




Sam’s Bar

Sixty Stories

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

Snow White

The Teachings of Don B.

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

Copyright © 2007 by The Estate of Donald Barthelme

Preface and editing copyright © 2007 by Kim Herzinger

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Barthelme, Donald.

Flying to America : 45 more stories / Donald Barthelme ;

edited and with a preface by Kim Herzinger.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN-13: 978-1-58243-917-4

1. Experimental fiction, American.

I. Herzinger, Kim A., 1946–
II. Title

PS3552.A76F59 2007

813'.54 — dc22

Jacket design by Gerilyn Attebery

Interior design by David Bullen





Flying to America


Edward and Pia

The Piano Player

Henrietta and Alexandra


Among the Beanwoods

You Are as Brave as Vincent Van Gogh

The Agreement

Basil From Her Garden

Paradise Before the Egg


Up, Aloft in the Air

Bone Bubbles

The Big Broadcast of 1938

This Newspaper Here

Tales of the Swedish Army

And Then

Can We Talk

Hiding Man

The Reference

Edwards, Amelia

Marie, Marie, Hold On Tight

Pages from the Annual Report

The Bed

The Discovery

You Are Cordially Invited

The Viennese Opera Ball



The Question Party


A Man



A Picture History of the War

The Police Band

The Sea of Hesitation

The Mothball Fleet


The New Member

To London and Rome

The Apology

Florence Green Is 81




In the fifteen years since we began the project of putting together all of Donald Barthelme’s unpublished and uncollected work, we’ve published his satires, parodies, fables, illustrated stories, plays, essays, reviews, occasional pieces, and interviews. But the crown of the project was always understood to be the publication of Barthelme’s unpublished and uncollected stories. It is the stories, after all, that established his genius and influence, and which radically transformed what twentieth-century American literature could be. Saddening as it is to have to accept that after these there will be no more stories, there is still reason to celebrate. All of Donald Barthelme’s work is now available in book form, and the importance of his achievement can now be fully appreciated.

Sixty Stories,
it was once said, was Barthelme’s attempt to establish his canon.
Forty Stories,
then, might be seen as his attempt to enlarge it.
Flying to America: 45 More Stories,
which contains every story not collected in
Sixty Stories
Forty Stories,
twelve stories never collected in any of the individual published volumes, and three previously unpublished stories, is a crucial addition — perhaps
crucial addition — to his existing canon.

The forty-five stories in
Flying to America
display the range of Barthelme’s talents as well as a rare peek into the working methods
of a supreme literary collagist. Some of Barthelme’s most dedicatedly experimental stories are available here. “Florence Green Is 81,” “The Sea of Hesitation,” “The Viennese Opera Ball,” “Bone Bubbles,” and “Flying to America,” for instance, demonstrate that any assumptions a reader might bring to a Barthelme story will be subject to challenge and disruption. “Florence Green Is 81,” the first story in Barthelme’s very first book, announced immediately and definitively that Barthelme’s kind of joking was not going to be joking around. As the title of that first book,
Come Back, Dr. Caligari,
suggests, “Florence Green Is 81” was a statement as well as a plea — Barthelme clearly thought that it was the likes of Caligari, that dislocated and aesthetically challenging figure, that required a comeback. We had had quite enough of that well-worn hero, Shane, and the forms and formulae that had created and sustained him. “Bone Bubbles” is a piece in which Barthelme’s experiment in word collision reminds us of such tablet breakers as Joyce, Beckett, Burroughs, or even Mallarmé. The title story, “Flying to America,” is a superb example of Barthelme’s collage method of construction, a story that itself absorbed bits and pieces of previously published work, and then lent itself — in bits and pieces — to no fewer than three subsequently published stories.

Many of the stories in
Flying to America
were generated by the aesthetic and cultural issues that engaged Barthelme throughout his writing career: the perils of the unfulfilled life; the modern tendency toward conformist nonconformity; the blindness of obsession; the relationship between art and life, politics and life, sex and life; the necessity of continuing to ask questions even as we are aware of the inevitability of not knowing the answers. “Perpetua,” to call on one example, features a woman perpetually in search of an authentic, nonconformist individualism, only to demonstrate that the very act of consciously setting out to make herself different can become the worst kind of cliche, leading to a kind of drained theatrical one-upmanship of idiosyncrasy that she is doomed to repeat — perpetually. “To London and Rome” offers a vision of married life mechanistically attached to money and acquisition, where the flatness and terror of the unfulfilled life portrayed in the main
text is juxtaposed to a column of statements and “stage directions” that remind us of the joy-stripped world of Harold Pinter’s theater of menace. The marvelous “Tickets,” the last story Barthelme published in
The New Yorker,
features that numbingly formal, almost-British voice he so often used — a voice we associate with Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, not to speak of that great line of English comic writers from Wodehouse and Sir Henry Howard Bashford to Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard — completely absorbed in its own obsessions, delivered by a character whose unremitting confidence only serves to reveal his incomparable blindness. “The Agreement,” to call on one last example, is constructed around one man’s series of recurring and increasingly anxious questions, questions that are unanswerable because, to quote Barthelme himself, “the Project Life is in some sense beyond his abilities.”

Here are stories in which the attitudes and processes of two seemingly mutually exclusive worlds are wonderfully mixed or transposed and thereby refreshed. In “The Police Band,” for instance, a police riot squad trains to perform its job of calming crowds and maintaining order, not with guns and truncheons, but with saxophones and drums and renditions of “Perdido” — a “triumph of art over good sense.” Like so many of the best romantic ideas circa
annus terribilus
1968, when the story appeared in
Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts,
such a band was “an idea of a very Romantic kind,” as Barthelme tells us, but it was also “an idea that didn’t work.”

And here, too, are stories motivated by Barthelme’s persistent anger at institutional bureaucracy and, especially, at the dangerous follies of government. “Subpoena,” “The Reference,” “The New Member,” come to mind, as does “The Mothball Fleet,” in which an “Admiral” who once believed in the mission of those destroyers and battleships, and the meaning of the flag they flew, now gathers the same ships to attack a government he no longer trusts. “I believed,” the Admiral tells us. “Then, over time, I discovered that they were lying. Consistently. With exemplary skill, in a hundred languages. I decided to take the ships.” It is the kind of Vietnam-era story we might have expected Barthelme to write, a furious comic
parable restrained by its own seriousness, but sustained by an irony which is his last defense against a government which has rendered him helpless, angry, and immensely sad. It is the kind of story we might, perhaps, expect Barthelme to write now, if he had lived to see something of the Vietnam era making its ugly return.

In the papers examined after Barthelme’s death, in 1989, there were a number of “fits and starts” — fragments, beginnings, and unfinished pieces. But for a writer who published significantly and continuously for almost thirty years, there just weren’t
many. Nor were there many unpublished pieces that we could say were complete. Of them, “Among the Beanwoods” and “Heather” both revisit the linguistic torque we find in Barthelme’s best work. “Pandemonium,” on the other hand, was a piece Barthelme was working on very late in his life, and is very likely an early draft, a sketch of what he intended eventually to do. Unpolished as it may be, “Pandemonium” is still a lively little thing, and serves at the very least to provide us a look at his writing in process.

BOOK: Flying to America
9.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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