‘Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning’ by Donald Barthelme

Barthelme, Donald 1968

Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning by Donald Barthelme, 1968

The magic trick:

Creating a web of anecdotes that are funny and satirical but also surprisingly affecting

In my journalism career I’ve written a lot of overcooked, pretentious crap. But at least I can say I have never fallen prey to the present-tense, describe-the-scene to describe-the-man personality profile story. They really are the worst.

But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Donald Barthelme. He lights that kind of slick/sick magazine writing up in this story. The real trick is that he manages to parody the American media while also creating an effective personality profile. The little nuggets of Robert Kennedy’s life – invented, of course – are so well-selected and so well-drawn that I actually found myself coming to care about this character, even as I knew the real point was humor and vicious parody.

It is an outstanding example of postmodernism that actually works. And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.

The selection:

K Penetrated with Sadness

He hears something playing on someone else’s radio, in another part of the building. The music is wretchedly sad; now he can (barely) hear it, now it fades into the wall. He turns on his own radio There it is, on his own radio, the same music. The sound fills the room.

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