Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pynchon on Barthelme and Houston

Reviews of the new biography of Donald Barthelme (Michael Berryhill had one in Sunday's Chronicle, but we can't find it online so here's one from the Washington Post and a nice appreciation of the writer himself in Time) sent us back to the introduction Thomas Pynchon wrote for a posthumous collection of Barthelme stories that was published about 10 years ago (if we remember correctly). Pynchon’s essay was helpful in calling our attention to the general pissed-offedness that pervaded Barthelme’s works---a sense of grievance tempered by his “hopeful and unbitter heart,” as Pynchon wrote. (We are certainly no expert on Barthelme, having left unfinished many if not most of his pieces that we waded into, although some thrummed a deep chord---we’re thinking especially of that exquisite sentence Barthelme titled Sentence, which is in some collection or another of his stories.) But the essay is most notable for the way Pynchon bullseyes the Houston of the 1950s and early ’60s and the mark if left on Barthelme, who was unable to shake free of his hometown until he was past 30 and was to return here later, and die here (Pynchon's off on a "fact" or two but nails the essence):
On the principle that you can take the boy out of the country but not vice versa, Houston, Texas, his hometown before New York, must have caused Barthelme some lively internal discomfort over the course of a love-hate affair with the place that went on, it seems, for most of his life. From what I remember of Houston at about that same time, it could have provoked the one emotion just as easily as the other, and in Texas-size quantities, too. The Astrodome was brand new in those days. Air conditioning in the city was ubiquitous. There were schemes afoot to put a dome over part of downtown and air-condition it, creating what today we would call a mall. Entire boulevards were dedicated to churches, side by side, one after another, allowing you to drop the family car in low and actually cruise places of worship. The nearest venue for dope, sex, and rock 'n' roll, then as now, was Austin. The new NASA space center out by Buffalo Bayou was hiring heavily, while from the marshlands around it, mosquitoes were busy spreading an encephalitis epidemic. Sir John Barbirolli had fashioned of the Houston symphony an exquisitely first-rate instrument, while teenage musical heresy focused on California surf culture -- though the Gulf only had surf during hurricanes, all kinds of kids could still be observed driving around with some stick in some woody, flaunting boards that never caught a wave, as if trying to make it all be California. Anyplace but what it was.


Anonymous said...

Long review in the current New Yorker. Thanks for the quote, it really does hit Houston in the 60's.

x.- said...

Nice blog.