Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he'd gone too far, so we decided to hang him.”

Thus opens one of my all-time favorite stories, Donald Barthelme’s “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.” It continues:

“Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn't pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he'd think about it but it would take him a while to decide. I pointed out that we'd have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn't begin until he knew what the music was going to be.”

Signature Barthelme! That straight-faced absurdity. That matter-of-factness. Splendid reading is Donald Barthelme. Splendid. And one of the first authors to heavily influence the formation of my literary taste.

When I was a teenager I got a copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, and I read it enthusiastically. It was the first time I read Carver’s "Cathedral," Joy Williams’s "Health," Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried," and lots of other important ones; but more than any of them I obsessed over Barthelme’s story “The Emerald.” It showed me that I could write something completely outside “the rules” of conventional storytelling, and not only could something strange like that get published but it could even be considered the best of an entire decade. Now every time I’m tempted to listen to a naysayer in a workshop who wishes I'd be more obvious or play less with language, someone who wants me to dumb-down and get with the homogeny, I stop and remind myself that Barthelme gave me permission to do whatever kind of wacky experiment I can conjure up. He showed me that fiction doesn't need rules, and he encouraged me to prove it in my writing.

If you’re still in a listy mood, you can read his suggested booklist here. It’s rich, meaty, with lots of hearty selections to chew on.

See more on Barthelme here.