Print Reviews
Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound
by Helen Moore Barthelme
Texas A&M (2001)
Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound
8 / 10
Helen Moore Barthelme wrote just one book in her lifetime; in 2002, her friends and colleagues read passages from it at her funeral. Oddly enough, that book was an account of her rocky marriage with and bitter divorce from the father of postmodern literature. But Moore Barthelme was no literary groupie, or just another in a long line of writers to apologize for the troubled, beloved author. What she has written is a quietly devastating portrait of gendered expectations and addiction in supposedly enlightened circles.

Barthelme diehards should note that this is not merely a biography. The first two-thirds of The Genesis Of A Cool Sound relegate the man who would be Don B to a bit player in Moore Barthelme's life. She is not interested in the meat of other Barthelme biographies—his rejection of Catholicism, his stormy relationship with his father, or even, truly, the genesis of that cool sound. Moore Barthelme tells a complex story about two people's warring ambitions. Helen and Don meet as journalism students in Houston and build a circle of mutual, highly educated, privileged members of the arts and literature world. Eventually, they leave their respective first marriages to forge a life together that revolves around gallery openings, discussions of Sartre and Beckett, and spending beyond their means on furniture and art. When not working as a curator or editor, Don is determined to create a new style in fiction that will make him famous. Meanwhile, Helen delights in smashing stereotypes about women and careers. "In my work at the university, I had occupied one of the most desirable jobs available to women in Houston," she writes. "I was even invited to run for a county political office . . . when I told [my boss] that my salary would be double what I was earning at the university, he exclaimed with remarkable innocence, 'But that's more than some of our male faculty members earn!'" She pursues advertising, and quickly owns her own agency.

Moore Barthelme shares her ex-husband's gift for saying the most with the words she does not use. Buried within a dry retelling of Don's years editing the University of Houston's literary journal, Forum, she casually mentions two stillbirths. Later, when discussing Don's desire to leave his job to write full-time, she adds, "Until now, we had sustained our 'idyllic' world, and it was only years later that I saw how unrealistic I, as well as Don had been . . . in the 1950s and even in the early 1960s, pregnancy was an event that a woman faced pretty much alone. I now had no desire whatsoever to become pregnant again." Later, in a chapter on Don's life post-divorce, she explains her difficulty in obtaining a loan to keep her agency afloat, "I was still of child-bearing age, and therefore not an acceptable risk." Such statements can seem as though Moore Barthelme is trying to wrest attention away from her subject, but in their full context, and their absence of any further explanation, they subtly advance her ultimate thesis—men like Don could exist as if they were the only subject in their life story, but women had to be used and trampled along the way. With the zeal of a historian, Moore Barthelme details the meals she served him, the clothes she bought him, and the décor he selected for their house. She matter-of-factly recounts their daily schedules, including one particularly arduous period in Houston when Don began writing daily, and Helen balanced housework, running the agency, and emotionally supporting Don. Her Don B is insecure and self-destructive; he rails against a literary agent who attempts to get his books placed on the equivalent of Oprah's Book Club, saying that his fans must be more educated. The man that Jonathan Franzen famously referred to as "Mr. Difficult" for expecting his readers to be well versed in existential philosophy and French film directors worries constantly that he is not more nationally admired by popular culture. Helen handles all responsibility from managing their budget, soothing his ego, and, eventually, giving up her agency and desires for a Ph.D to support him full-time. At the urging of the other women in her life, she obliges his every need, until he asks her to move into another apartment, and support them both while he explores polyamory. Her refusal begins the book's satisfying, breakneck conclusion: "My pride and my own expectations of our marriage made it impossible for me to propose any kind of compromise."

In the book's final chapters, Helen resumes life in Houston as though she never left, returning to the agency and employing each of Don's brothers. Clearly, she and Don never broke free of each other. She is present every time he visits Houston, meeting him for dinner and too many drinks. When he dedicates his first book to his third wife, she angrily rips up the acknowledgment and mails it to him. Even after Don marries for a fourth time and takes full custody of a daughter, he and Helen keep in close contact until his early death from cancer and alcoholism.

Many Barthelme scholars will find the final analysis overly optimistic; against most common interpretation, Moore Barthleme glosses over Don's relationship with his father and insists that his writing primarily is autobiographical and influenced by a happy relationship with his daughter. She rarely references his actual work, and refers to the same handful of pieces. However, those who come to book with an open mind will be shaken by its quiet longing. As Don tells Helen on one of their many post-divorce meetings, "Imagine if we had just shaped up."
Posted by: Christie Church

Print Reviews (October 18th, 2006)