I Bought A Little City by Donald Barthelme, 1974
The magic trick:
Capturing the mindset of the oblivious tyrant who thinks he’s a nice guy
A mean man is unpleasant, yes, but a mean man who thinks he’s being nice it far worse. At least own your tyranny. At least feel the guilt even as you enjoy the spoils. Alas, some people are so oblivious – or so good at rationalizing away sin – that they are able to behave selfishly on a regular basis and truly believe that they are a good person. We know the type all over, especially in the corporate world, especially in government. Certainly it’s not coincidence that Barthelme constructed this story right at the height of Watergate.
The city planner – or, absurdly, city owner – in this story believes he is acting justly, with appropriate restraint, with appropriated kindness and consideration, all within the bounds of democracy. Of course we the reader see otherwise. He never really goes off the deep end into Stalinistic tyranny (though he does shoot some 6,000 dogs in his city). That’s not this story’s point, nor its tone. He simply doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand how to function within a society, let alone construct one. Even in his humbling, “lesson learned” moment at the end of the story, he seems to be missing the point.
The premise might be surreal. The tone might be arch. But the character is all too recognizable in the real world. The story completely and totally nails it. And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.
I was pleased. All the people who lived in the four blocks surrounding the empty block had something they hadn’t had before, a park. They could sit in it, and like that. I went and watched them sitting in it. There was already a black man there playing bongo drums. I hate bongo drums. I started to tell him to stop playing those goddamn bongo drums but then I said to myself, No, that’s not right. You got to let him play his goddamn bongo drums if he feels like it, it’s part of the misery of democracy, to which I subscribe. Then I started thinking about new housing for the people I had displaced, they couldn’t stay in that fancy hotel forever.
But I didn’t have any ideas about new housing, except that it shouldn’t be too imaginative. So I got to talking to one of these people, one of the ones we had moved out, guy by the name of Bill Caulfield who worked in a wholesale tobacco place down on Mechanic Street.
“So what kind of a place would you like to live in?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said, “not too big.”
“Maybe with a veranda around three sides,” he said, “so we could sit on it and look out. A screened porch, maybe.”
“Whatcha going to look out at?”
“Maybe some trees and, you know, the lawn.”
“So you want some ground around the house.”
“That would be nice, yeah.”
“’Bout how much ground are you thinking of?”
“Well, not too much.”
“You see, the problem is, there’s only x amount of ground and everybody’s going to want to have it to look at and at the same time they don’t want to be staring at the neighbors. Private looking, that’s the thing.”
“’Well, yes,” he said, “I’d like it to be kind of private.”
“Well,” I said, “get a pencil and let’s see what we can work out.”
We started with what there was going to be to look at, which was damned difficult.