Chablis by Donald Barthelme, 1983
The magic trick:
Summing up the story in one very quick image of the narrator watching runners run past his house
So much with Barthelme – at least my experience with him in the past – is subversion and humor and anger and nonsense as commentary. This story, on the other hand, comes very close to straight-up character study. Yes, the wit and zany tone is still there, but I found something a little steadier about the overall picture here.
I especially liked the scene our narrator describes that sees him waking up early to his desk, Chablis, cigarettes and paranoia, while his neighbors are out running and being healthy. It’s a wonderful image. It makes me laugh, but it also very accurately sums up the plight of the even-only-slightly alienated middle class in suburban America. So much pressure. It’s sad. This is the first Barthelme story I have read where I feel like the target of the subversion and the humor is getting the upper hand. I guess regular adult life is a foe difficult for anyone, even the geniuses, to defeat. And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.
I looked at some dogs at Pets ’a Plenty, which has birds, rodents, reptiles and dogs. All in top condition. They showed me the cairn terriers.
“Do they have their prayer books?” I asked.
This woman clerk didn’t know what I was talking about.
“The cairn terriers run about $295 per with their papers.”
I started to ask if they had any illegitimate children at lower prices, but I could see that it would be useless. And the woman already didn’t like me, I could tell.
What is wrong with me? Why am I not a more natural person like my wife wants me to be?