~by Dan Pinkerton
Donald Barthelme published only one children’s book in his career, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine OR The Hithering Thithering Djinn. The title is reminiscent of one of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales, and you get the sense Barthelme probably watched the cartoons and was maybe even diverted by them. He did after all have a penchant for writing fractured fairy tales of his own, featuring the likes of Sinbad, Bluebeard, Snow White, and King Arthur. Of course, his inspiration came from sources both older and more esteemed than Saturday morning TV, but even a quotidian tale like “The School” comes to assume an animated quality in Barthelme’s hands, a discourse on love and (mainly) death that ends with a gerbil knocking on the door and entering a classroom.
But back to Fire Engine: the illustrations were appropriated from nineteenth-century texts, and Barthelme admitted the text was “written to fit” the pictures. This go-where-the-nineteenth-century-illustration-takes-you approach is undoubtedly a high-flying, free-wheeling way to compose. Of course, you probably need to be a writer of Barthelme’s considerable gifts to pull it off, otherwise the whole thing comes crashing down in a miasma of meaningless frippery OR egotistical authorial indulgence. Fire Engine tumbles along like, well, an elephant tumbling down a hill (one of the events depicted in the book), the randomness of incidents merely adding to the fun.
Barthelme used similar old-timey illustrations in grown-up stories like “At the Tolstoy Museum” and “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace.” In Fire Engine he pairs the illustrations with captions taken from a Victorian-era type-specimen book: “Slender-Waistedness: Corseted Divinities with Waspish Affinities Worrying, Flurrying”; “Hydrate of Chloral: Gentle Quiet Balm of Peace to Nervous Spirits”; and “Buried Jewels: Oceanic Dredging Company,” among others.
The juxtapositions of illustration and slogan will be lost on kids, but the story Barthelme wrote to accompany the pictures is simple enough to follow. The young protagonist, Mathilda, steps outside one morning in the year 1887 to “go hooping” (apparently all the rage back then) only to find that a six foot high Chinese house has sprouted overnight in her backyard. Mathilda greets the event with shrugging acceptance, remarking simply that she would have preferred a sparkling red fire engine. Barthelme appeared to revel in this discord between the extremity of an event and the characters’ response to it, for he used the same trick in his adult fictions. Check out “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” a tale in which Colby has gone “too far.” He admits to his indiscretions (never specified), and the rest of the story details the preparations Colby’s friends make for his public execution. Colby himself becomes entangled in the arrangements for the hanging, chiming in with suggestions on the musical accompaniment and other matters.
The Chinese house in Fire Engine grows to nine feet in height, strange noises emanating from within. This doesn’t deter Mathilda from entering, where she encounters a series of polite Chinese guards, a rainmaker, and a djinn. The guards provide an inventory of the house’s contents: Chinese acrobats, a cat-seller, an elephant that falls downhill, some flying machines, Chicken Chow Mein, and a pirate. Mathilda asks to see the pirate, whom she finds sitting in a rocking chair, knitting. He is moody and irritable, having been captured “some time ago” and relieved of his cutlass. Undoubtedly readers will find the idea of a bloodthirsty pirate reduced to such circumstances amusing. The book abounds in actors playing against type, events verging on the surreal, bits of absurdist humor (which might be a fair summation of Barthelme’s work in general). When Mathilda compliments the pirate’s beard, for instance, he responds that he has them “in four different colors: Brown, brown, brown, and brown.” And after they have watched the elephant tumble down the hill, Mathilda asks if he does it every day. “He is closed Mondays,” the djinn dryly replies.
Mathilda lunches with the pirate and djinn, and afterward they watch the Entertainment: jug-dancers, clowns, tightrope walkers and fencers. The djinn asks Mathilda if she would like to have an esplanade or become a “grown-up tennis-playing hat-wearing woman, or a one-man band.” By this point, the found illustrations—rather than the author—seem to direct the narrative, and Fire Engine threatens to come apart at the seams. But Barthelme’s droll humor and light touch prevail. With a few quick strokes, he’s able to give each character a distinct personality. The djinn offers Mathilda a series of souvenirs to take with her when she leaves. “I’m awfully fond of fire engines,” she responds, and from that single line of dialogue we get a sense of Mathilda’s stubbornness, her unflappability. “I am tired of talking about fire engines,” the djinn replies. Again there is humor in the idea of a djinn arguing with and trying to appease a child. Their conversation is interrupted by the sound of Mathilda’s nurse calling for her. When she returns to the backyard the following morning, the Chinese house is gone, a bright green (i.e. slightly irregular) fire engine in its place.
The book’s style is ultimately not so different from Barthelme’s short stories. It shares the same matter-of-fact tone, belying the strangeness of the events described; the same juxtaposition of dissimilar elements (as in Barthelme’s “Sinbad,” for example, where the Persian sailor shares space with a night school instructor); the same dry wit; the same fascination with the absurd; the same preoccupation with reimagining the figures of ancient storytelling: djinns, pirates, performers. Fire Engine won the National Book Award in 1972, and in his acceptance speech, Barthelme stated that “Writing for children, like talking to them, is full of mysteries…but mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate.”
There’s a sense of this in Barthelme’s absurdist tendencies, but overall I’d characterize his work—the short stories, at least—as the compressed accretion of detail, the stories not so much written as they are built. The details sometimes relate only tangentially, but it is Barthelme’s consistency of tone that provides the mortar. Barthelme was a chronicler of fact, someone who would’ve loved Google and Wikipedia and who would’ve excelled as a Jeopardy! contestant. He ends his story “Lightning,” about a journalist, Edward Connors, who sets out to interview people struck by lightning, by saying that Connors “described the experience as ‘ineffable,’ using a word he had loathed and despised his whole life long.” Connors’ editor quickly cuts the paragraph, arguing that readers don’t like “funny stuff.”
At first this seemed to me a contradiction. Barthelme’s writing could be absurd, but rarely did it venture into the realm of the mysterious, the ineffable, almost as though he himself disavowed “funny stuff.” But the mystery is there, as the foundation of the stories. It was what drew Barthelme to myths and folktales, to Sinbad, Bluebeard, Captain Blood, and Snow White. The details—pirates, Chinese houses, tumbling elephants—while no less important, are the bricks set atop the ineffable, merging it with reality. In Fire Engine, Barthelme ties these disparate images together so well that he makes us shrug our shoulders, as Mathilda does, at the implausibility of a fully-peopled Chinese house appearing suddenly in the backyard. If it’s there, then we may as well go and explore it.
Dan Pinkerton lives in Des Moines, Iowa with his wife and two kids, both of whom have strong opinions about what constitutes great literature. His stories and poems have appeared in such places as Quarterly West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Orleans Review, Subtropics, Sonora Review, Boston Review, and the Best New American Voices anthology.