On Donald Barthelme's "Sixty Stories" & Mary Robison's "The Dictionary in the Laundry Chute"

Back in 1988 it was and none other than Donald Barthelme called my one-bedroom flat in Jersey City and asked to speak with me. This was close to God giving you a call and wanting to chat. I’d been a fan of D. Barthelme ever since I started college and began to read good fiction. (His wasn’t the only mindblowing fiction I discovered early in college: I remember buying a paperback of Nabokov’s Bend Sinister at a Goodwill store, so naive that I had never even heard of Lolita: Before too long I had read all the Nabokov I could get my hands on, and though I don’t read him much anymore, he’s still one of my favorites.) Barthelme was calling to invite me to join the writing program at the University of Houston, which he directed at the time. (Now, all these years later, I’m directing the writing program at Penn State. Which seems a case of What Goes Around.) Today’s NY Times reviews a biography of Donald Barthelme by Tracy Daugherty, a good fellow and former student of his, an excellent fiction writer too. Barthelme passed away too young and too soon, and I ended up studying with Mary Robison at the University of Houston all those years ago: it was by studying Barthelme’s and Robison’s fiction that I mastered the art of using third-person narration. Back then I noticed most of my peers wrote first person stories, and many of them sounded the same. So I decided to master third-person, and have since found that as my mainstay. I was amazed at how fast Mary Robison could create a world in third-person, and in her best stories, like “The Dictionary in the Laundry Chute,” evoke a powerful emotional punch through seemingly ‘everyday’ details. She’s a good person, too, soft-spoken, humble, disarming. I learned from her that you don’t have to be an obnoxious monster to be a successful writer. Barthelme is flashier and more fantastic, with stories like “The School” and “I Bought a Little City” being some of my favorites. To this day when I see a big moonrise and am out walking with my wife, I’ll say, “See the moon? It hates us.” Lines from a great Donald Barthelme story in Sixty Stories.

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