The Teachings of Don B.

By Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon

399 ratings - 3.89* vote

A hypothetical episode of Batman hilariously slowed down to soap-opera speed. A game of baseball as played by T.S. Eliot and Wilem "Big Ball" de Kooning.  A recipe suitable for feeding sixty park-enamored celebrants at one's daughter's wedding. An outlandishly illustrated account of a scientific quest for God. These astonishing tropes of the imagination could only have been generated by Donald Barthelme, who, until his death in 1989, more or less goosed American letters into taking a quantum

... more

Book details

Paperback, 384 pages
Published March 31st 1998 by Vintage

(first published 1992)

Original Title
The Teachings of Don B.
0679741194 (ISBN13:9780679741190)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Jim Elkins

Barthelme as an author of the past

The consensus on Barthelme is that he launched the postmodern short-story form in the US. A thoughtful review by James Wolcott ("Bookforum," February / March 2008, pp. 9-10), sums it up:

"Today, I would hazard... the track marks of Barthelme's suave, subversive cunning are to be found less in postmodern fiction -- although David Foster Wallace's dense foliage of footnotes suggests a Barthelmean undergrowth and George Saunders's arcade surrealism has a runaway-nephew quality -- than in the conscientiously oddball, studiedly offhand, hiply recherché, mock-anachronistic formalism of 'McSweeney's,' 'The Believer,' 'The Crier,' and related organs of articulate mumblecore."

The current generation of young MFA writing program candidates still see the "McSweeney's" option as one of their main goals. So in that sense, Barthelme remains a ubiquitous influence. (George Saunders's essay on Barthelme, in "The Brain-Dead Megaphone," is the best thing written on Barthelme, if you're looking for a guide.)

Barthelme is part of the history of postwar American writing. But is he someone to read now? Here I was struck by just how much of it has lost its shine. There are hilarious pieces, and at times the wit is as sharp as it seemed in the 1970s. But Barthelme's liberal politics are as predictable as his quips are surprising. His absurdism has always been a safe version of real absurdism. If you're interested in surrealist or absurdist shock, read Raymond Roussel, or Daniil Kharms (who has also been praised by Saunders, in the "New York Times Book Review.") As Wolcott points out, the entire New Fiction movement was subjected to a typically devastating critique by Gore Vidal ("American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction") back in 1976; Vidal thought the movement, including Pynchon, was contrived and derivative of French experimental fiction. I'd rather trace it to Russian and central European absurdist literature and surrealism, but the significance is the same: Barthelme is watered-down, domesticated, playful, harmless absurdism. Never too angry, seldom directly polemic, never despairing. (That would be gauche, and it would dispense with the multiple layers of irony that are necessary to project authenticity while studiously avoiding it.)

After a few days reading Barthelme, the happiness of seeing plodding seriousness exploded continuously and brilliantly in my face when I least expect it (but really not-so-secretly expecting it all along) pales into a memory of that happiness, which I now mistrust and even regret, and I find I want some real pain or a laugh that doesn't come with a small grimace acknowledging the writer's artifice and the reader's complicity.

Eric Cartier

This is a curious, uneven, posthumous collection that includes Barthelme's signed and unsigned letters to The New Yorker, recipes, short-short stories, photo/illustration collage stories, variations of stories that appeared in Guilty Pleasures and Overnight to Many Distant Cities, and plays that were never produced. Barthelme newcomers ought to begin with either aforementioned book, because the works here run the gamut from treasures to dreck. What's worthy is wonderful, though, and this book was a true refuge during my last few weeks of graduate school. Below are a list of the pieces I loved (including "L'Lapse", a scathing, spot-on rip on Antonioni's film "L'Eclisse", which is one of my favorite films) and the usual glut of excerpts.

The good stuff:

Languishing, half-deep in summer . . .
The Palace
The Joker's Greatest Triumph
At last, it is time . . .
Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said
The Angry Young Man
Speaking of the human body . . .
Bunny Image, Loss of: The Case of Bitsy S.
The Photographs
Monumental Folly

The bits that clicked:

Languishing, half-deep in summer, soul-sick and under-friended, I decided to find love.

But I put my melancholy aside and went vigorously about the business of getting connected. I got myself connected to Southwestern Bell, and Entex, and the Light Company, and cable TV, long lines binding me once again into the community.

I set out to sail Buffalo Bayou on a four-by-eight sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood powered by eight mighty Weed Eaters and I saw many strange and wonderful things. I saw an egret and then another egret and a turtle and a refrigerator without a door on it and a heron and a possum and an upside-down '52 Pontiac.

These fine homemade recipes work! Use them with furious enthusiasm.

I am, at the moment, feeling very jolly. Hey hey, I say. It is remarkable how well human affairs can be managed, with care.

"A lovely new song," he says. "Kiss her now, while she's young. Kiss her now, while she's yours."

The moon rocks were as good as a meaningful and emotionally rewarding seduction that you had not expected.

In Bicentennial America yesterday is terrific. Instead of yearning forwardly, which makes more sense in terms of the possible, we yearn backwardly, and who cares for "sense" anyhow?

* * * * *

BLOOMSBURY: A girl I knew once. Slightly. For a space. (Pause) A short space.

WHITTLE: Did you get on well together?

BLOOMSBURY: Like a house afire. (Pause) Like a burning house. (Pause) For a space. (Pause) A short space. (Pause) Temporary love. (Pause) Golden days in the sunshine of our happy youth. (Pause) Brief love. (Pause) Golden days, in the sunshine of our happy youth.

* * * * *

The affair ran the usual course. Fever, boredom, trapped.

* * * * *

SNOW WHITE: You've exhausted me . . . as a possibility?

BILL: No, Snow White. You are still . . . You are the game and the object of the game and the prize for winning the game and the referee. (Pause) And the other team.


Algunos de los relatos de Barthelme son simple y llanamente extraordinarios. Parece que se ría de todo, de todos, con una imaginación que raya en la locura. Es raro, raro de narices en muchas ocasiones, y eso quizá pueda molestar a aquellos lectores que nunca esperan nada cuando se encuentran con un libro entre las manos. Si algo tiene Barthelme, y en este compendio de textos uno se da perfecta cuenta, es que hace de la escritura un juego. Me he reído bastante, como en sus relatos 'El salto', 'Algunos llevábamos mucho tiempo amenazando a nuestro amigo Golby o 'Lánguido, en pleno verano'. También he pensado si estaba en su sano juicio al escribir 'Rayos' o 'La esmeralda'. Hace buena crítica de la sociedad, de las religiones, de la avaricia, de lo que es el periodismo (de ayer y de hoy)... Y todo ello, insisto, jugando. Hace lo que quiere con el estilo. Cada relato es completamente distinto, su estructura, su tono, su lenguaje.

Nathan Jerpe

A little uneven but there are several uproarious peaks.

My Favorites :

-Three Great Meals
-The Palace
-The Joker's Greatest Triumph (yes, that Joker)
-The Art of Baseball (with T. S. Eliot @ shortstop)

-The Friends of the Family

Collage Pieces
-there are about six of them and really I liked every one, The Nation of Wheels is about exactly that and is the zaniest of them all.

There were a number of shorts I couldn't make heads or tails of, and the other two plays left me bemused. Still a lot of good variety in this volume and some of the head-scratchers will probably warrant a revisit down the road.

Маx Nestelieiev

нарешті дочитав. збірка уривків, фрагментів і неоповідань-неновел. абсурдний гумор як суміш Беккета, Сартра та ТСЕліота. дуже багато політичних алюзій і загалом часто згадано президентів. цінна передмова від Томаса Пінчона+прикольні колажі з вікторіанськими картинками+back-breaking sentences+бурхлива фантазія словолюба і життєлюба Дона Б.

Jim Puskas

This is an audacious agglomeration of steampunk, doodles, in-jokes, New-Yorker-speak and pretentious new-age twaddle. And I don’t buy it. It seems to me that if Barthelme was half as clever as he liked to pretend, he could just as easily have written something inspiring. Or insightful. Or at least, God help us, amusing. I suppose Don B was having fun. I wasn’t.
After plodding my way through the first half dozen entries, I began to perceive a pattern: Each article started off with a kind of set-up, reminiscent of the intro you get at the opening act of a play — along the lines of “A deserted street, somewhere in the lower East side, enter a barber and his landlord, carrying a monkey”. This is mildly intriguing. Dialogue ensues. It all fades away. I shake my head and try the next entry. Repeat process. Having thereby been enlightened regarding how this works, I understood that by reading only the first dozen lines of each article, I would be almost certain to learn everything of interest that the entire piece had to say and would be free to move right along to the next entry. I would like to thank Mr. B for imparting to me a valuable technique for saving time, should I have occasion to read any more of his stuff at some future date. Regrettably, Mr. B is no longer with us, so I’m unable to thank him in person; perhaps I ought to send a letter of thanks to his publisher. But on second thought, that would be pointless, since I will make sure never to read any more of Barthelme’s musings.

Jeff Jackson

Despite what the wonderful introduction by Thomas Pynchon claims, this is not 'vintage Barthelismo.' There are some choice odds and sods - including dynamite recipes - for the delectation of fans, but the curious should start with '60 Stories.'


Absurd and surreal free-associative stories, playful, odd, and totally uninterested in comprehensibility, full of references to literature and philosophy, art and music, but also to pop culture and ephemera, comprised of found texts, collages of words, lists, theatrical declamations, bizarre dislocations and nonsequitors. He used the methods invented by Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and others to unfold language as a tool for the unfettering of human consciousness and our liberation from social and historical norms and conventions.
Donald Barthelme wears the hat of a jester, but enacts the performances of a revolutionary. He descibes his early influence in a Paris Review interview, recounting that his father "gave me, when I was fourteen or fifteen, a copy of Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism". I'd say he has spent his life continuing in that path, from where others left off.
Master of the short story, he explores new modes of fiction in collections like Come Back, Dr. Caligari, Guily Pleasures, Sadness, City Life, Guilty Pleasures, and more. One might begin with the two posthumus collections of essays & stories, The Teachings of Don B. and Not Knowing. Of his novels, Snow White is a stellar debut, and The Dead Father is a masterpiece which everyone should read.
Snow White is a farce of broken dreams, its impact reliant on tone, of which he is a master, borne on a wave of experimentalism of every kind, an astonishing performance which defies interpretation.
The Dead Father is an outrageous, hilarious, glorious satire grown in the soil of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra and Freud's Totem and Taboo, a trip on Ken Kesey's Magic Bus with William S. Burroughs as the tour guide. Ride along a while, and see where the road takes you.

Andrew Doerfler

Putting this away for now, after 114 pages. Loved the style and voice, but you lose something reading such quick-hits straight through in book form. One after another, they start to lose their fizz, and you're left craving something more substantial. It'd be perfect to stumble upon one on its own in a magazine.

Anderson Quiroga

La enseñanza que queda del libro: todo puede convertirse en una historia, desde un empaque de sopa de pollo marca Knorr, el villano de una serie animada de los 80, hasta el despido de una conejita Playboy. No existe un formato establecido para contar una historia, existen, en este caso 24