~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. Continue reading