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Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme

Forty Stories (1987)

by Donald Barthelme

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I openly admit my tastes tends to be a bit quirky, even oddball, which probably accounts for the fact that I really, really, really enjoyed two stories in this collection, two stories not given so much as a mention in other reviews, at least the ones I’ve read on this thread. And what, you may ask, are those two Donald Barthelme stories? Answer: “Chablis” and “The New Owner.” And I really, really, really had a blast doing the write-up of each of these yummy chocolate snappers. After sampling as per below, you might even consider picking up the entire box of forty:

Domestic Impasse: Our first-person narrator lets it be known quite emphatically he is happy remaining a husband and father (he has an almost 2-year-old baby girl), rather than becoming a husband, father and dog-owner. But, damn, his wife says not only does she want a dog but now the baby wants a dog. Sidebar: One way to read this Barthelme shorty is as Raymond Carver parody.

Bah, Bah, Black Sheep: His wife tells him the kind of dog the baby wants is a Carin terrier since a Carin terrier is a good Presbyterian just like herself and the baby. Meanwhile, he reflects: “I didn’t go to church because I was the black sheep. There were five children in my family and the males rotated the position of black sheep among us, the oldest one being the black sheep for a while while he was in his DWI period or whatever and then getting grayer as he maybe got a job or was in the service and then finally becoming a white sheep when he got married and had a grandchild. My sister was never a black sheep because she was a girl.” Stark, mostly staccato sentences and deadpan narrative voice – oh yeah, Donald Barthelme, you sly Texas dog, clicking into that Raymond Carver rhythm.

Baby, Baby: Although he told his wife a baby was too expensive, those women will wear a man down, even if it takes years, and this is exactly what happened to him. So, he hangs around and hugs the baby named Joanna, every chance he gets. But when Joanna watches television she just looks dumb and forgets you’re there. Oh, Joanna - welcome to Carver country, even parody Carver country, where you sit around all day watching television. In another few years you’ll have a chance to partake of that other Carver country preoccupation – heavy drinking.

Dog, Redux: Back on the dog. We sense our narrator on the cusp of a little Carver country male rage when he reflects how he can see himself walking all over their subdivision hunting down his damn runaway terrier, a little brown dog named Michael, a possibly rabid dog, a dog that might even have bitten someone in the subdivision. “It’s enough to make you think about divorce.” Sounds like our male narrator needs to have a serious talk with his wife before things really get out of hand.

Self-Examination: He finally reaches the point of critical self-appraisal, wondering why he himself isn’t a more natural person like his wife wants him to be. He sits in his second-floor den at his desk at five-thirty in the morning, looking out the window at the joggers, worrying, worrying about Joanna jamming a kitchen knife into an electric socket or worrying about Joanna eating her crayons, all the time smoking and drinking Gallo Chablis. Ha! Gallo Chablis – at least Donald Barthelme lets his narrator drink a glass of Chablis instead of beer. Now that’s a step up! Maybe our narrator is even a regular reader of the New Yorker.

Congratulations: His memory travels back to a time when he was the family black sheep, when he was driving his friend’s Buick and swerved into a cornfield to avoid a head-on collision. Well that was one time when he did something right for a change. He pats himself on the back and goes to check on the baby. The story ends here on an upbeat (one of the advantages of drinking Chablis instead of beer, perhaps?), a real honest-to-goodness escape from the usual fare in Carver country.

The New Owner
Not-So-Good Vibrations: “When he came to look at the building, with a real estate man hissing and oozing beside him, we lowered the blinds, muted or extinguished lights, threw newspapers and dirty clothes on the floor in piles, burned rubber bands in ashtrays, and played Buxtehude on the hi-fi – shaking organ chords whose vibrations made the plaster falling from the ceiling fall faster.” So begins the dreaded nightmare come true for any long-standing apartment renter: the new landlord is the landlord from hell.

Immediate Changes: Oh, no, little rent bills start appearing in the mailboxes, the rent goes up and the heat goes down. Bicycles must be removed from the halls; shopping carts must be removed from the halls. Sure, you’ve lived in your apartment for decades with your friends and neighbors, everything going along smoothly, but guess what – you can be replaced tomorrow; actually, it would be better all round (at least according to the new landlord) if you moved out. Oh, Donald Barthelme, you have touched on one very raw nerve here.

The Old Super: Your old super is great; he takes out the garbage, keeps the halls mopped and fixes all the things needing fixing. Now he’s a goner. Was that him arguing with the new landlord at 10:00 last night? So it goes. Now you have a new super you never see – garbage piles up, halls are a mess and because the new landlord stopped the extermination service, the roaches begin taking over. No doubt about it – the new landlord wants you out.

Giving and Taking: The new landlord gives you and your neighbors a new month-to-month lease. He places a clear plastic cover, locked, over the thermostat. He holds a manila folder with new floor plans for your apartment building (no, that’s quite not accurate; you quickly revise your last thought to ‘his apartment building’). You are still young and working but how about Levon and Priscilla, the old couple upstairs? Lots of fear and trembling, to be sure.

Not-So-Well Wishes: I suspect nearly everybody reading these words can relate with the narrator’s sentiments, “The new owner stands on the roof, where the tomato plants are, owning the roof. May a good wind blow him to hell.”

Coda: For me, this story of an evil landlord is the bare bones many other writers could use to write their own ten to twenty page stories. Donald Barthelme captures some real magic by compressing the drama into less than three pages. No wonder William H. Gass said he set the ground for an entire genre of flash fiction. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
I love short stories, and one of my favorites is Donald Barthelme's hilarious and frightening "Game." Thus, I approached this collection with great anticipation. Starting with a story billed as one of his best works, I found myself mystified, and moved on to another. Four stories later, I still haven't a clue as to their content and meaning. Perhaps Mr. B is just not to my taste, and I should stick to the great classics. But I remain curious as to what I'm missing. ( )
2 vote danielx | Nov 27, 2014 |
I hadn’t read Donald Barthelme since my 20s, when my response was mostly a dim-bulb "WTF?" - with an occasional slower, dawning “Oh, I get it…” in a few cases like “City of Churches” or “The Indian Uprising,” when I got the jokes or understood the satire at work. What I did know that there were all those quiet, mannered, boring, he-said-she-said short stories in the New Yorker, and then there was Donald Barthelme, and nobody else was doing what he was doing. I got interested again recently after hearing Salman Rushdie read “Concerning the Bodyguard,” on a New Yorker podcast, in preface to which he remarked: “The thing about Donald Barthelme is he makes you think you can do it too - and you can’t. Sometimes even he can’t do it.” Then another podcast: the actor David Straithairn did a fantastic reading of “The Game,” on a Selected Shorts episode. So I realized that I had had a copy of Forty Stories on my bookshelf for decades and never really read it. And my response to reading it was kind of like the response to watching a tightrope walker or other circus acrobat do a particularly difficult trick – that initial gasp of surprise and pleasure, followed by the growing sense, as you watch all the other tricks that follow, and still appreciate their difficulty and risk: that the whole circus experience is not really going to take you to any place of profound insight and greater awareness - that’s not really what it’s for. If, as Barthelme says, Beckett made his work possible, that doesn’t mean he, like Beckett, is going to set you to ponder on existence and non-existence, meaning and absurdity, belief and despair. He’s a baroque descendant, more like a goofy pasticheur. And of course, silly me, I thought he was a total outlier in American fiction, but now, thanks (no thanks) to David Foster Wallace, McSweeney’s, and grad school, I guess, every other person out there thinks they "can do it too.” I wish they would take Salman Rushdie’s words to heart. ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
Some hits and some misses, but always an inventive exploration of the construction of a short story. This collection is very comparable to Barthelme's "Sixty Stories". I had heard one the best stories from this collection ("Concerning the Bodyguard") read by Salaman Rushdie on the New Yorker Fiction podcast and decided to snag this book when it appeared on paperbackswap. ( )
  albertgoldfain | Sep 26, 2012 |
I must admit to being a little underwhelmed by this collection - I got back into Barthelme's work after reading his marvellous short story "Cortes and Montezuma" - see


but prepare for a little audio surprise! - and I expected more of the same from this collection, but few of these stories hit those heights for me. "Cortes and Montezuma" is the perfect combination of absurdism, speculation, humour and emotion, but most of the "Forty Stories" lacked that particular richness of texture. All the same, there is much entertainment to be had here! ( )
  timjones | Jul 5, 2011 |
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To Marion, Anne, and Katharine
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My wife wants a dog.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0142437816, Paperback)

Like the title says, here are 40 short works culled from across Barthelme's career. Along with the similarly titled 60 Stories, this book provides one of the best samplings currently in print of Barthelme's unrivaled humor, his melancholy, the poetry of his line, and his considerable intellect. It includes pieces such as the famous "Sentence," (a single, several-page-long, unfinished sentence), "The Flight of Pigeons From the Palace," one of the writer's illustrated stories, and "Overnight To Many Distant Cities."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:33 -0400)

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