Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.
For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.
The Dead Father is a gargantuan half-dead, half-alive, part mechanical, wise, vain, powerful being who still has hopes for himselfeven while he is being dragged by means of a cable toward a mysterious goal. In this extraordinary novel, marked by the imaginative use of language that influenced a generation of fiction writers, Donald Barthelme offered a glimpse into his fictional universe. As Donald Antrim writes in his introduction, "Reading The Dead Father, one has the sense that its author enjoys an almost complete artistic freedom . . . a permission to reshape, misrepresent, or even ignore the world as we find it . . . Laughing along with its author, we escape anxiety and feel alive."
About the Author
Donald Barthelme was one of the most influential American novelists of the 1970s and 1980s, bringing a unique postmodern voice to his novels, short stories, and essays. He died in 1989.
Donald Antrim is the author of three novels, including The Verificationist.
Read an Excerpt
The Dead Father
By Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1975 Donald Barthelme
All rights reserved.
Eleven o'clock in the morning. The sun doing its work in the sky.
The men are tiring, said Julie. Perhaps you should give them a break.
Thomas made the "break" signal waving his arm in a downward motion.
The men fell out by the roadside. The cable relaxed in the road.
This grand expedition, the Dead Father said, this waltz across an unknown parquet, this little band of brothers ...
You are not a brother, Julie reminded him. Do not get waltzed away.
That they should so love me, the Dead Father said, as to haul and haul and haul and haul, through the long days and nights and less than optimal weather conditions ...
Julie looked away.
My children, the Dead Father said. Mine. Mine. Mine.
Thomas lay down with his head in Julie's lap.
Many sad things have befallen me, he said, and many sad things are yet to befall me, but the saddest thing of all is that fellow Edmund. The fat one.
The drunk, Julie said.
How did you come by him?
I was standing in the square, on a beer keg as I remember, signing people up, and heard this swallowing noise under my feet. Edmund. Swallowing the tap.
You knew, then. Before you signed him up.
He begged. He was abject.
A son of mine, nevertheless, said the Dead Father.
It would be the making of him, he said. Our march. I did not agree. But it is hard to deny someone the thing he thinks will be the making of him. I signed him up.
He has handsome hair, Julie said. That I've noticed.
He was happy to throw away the cap-and-bells, said Thomas. As we all were, he added, looking pointedly at the Dead Father.
Thomas pulled an orange fool's cap tipped with silver bells from his knapsack.
To think that I have worn this abomination, or its mate, since I was sixteen.
Sixteen to sixty-five, so says the law, said the Dead Father.
This does not make you loved.
Loved! Not a matter of love. A matter of Organization.
All the little heads so gay, said Julie. Makes one look a perfect fool, the cap. Brown-and-beige, maroon-and-gray, red-and-green, all bells chilattering. What a picture. I thought, What perfect fools.
As was intended, said the Dead Father.
And had I been caught out-of-doors without it, my ears cut off, said Thomas. What a notion. What an imagination.
A certain artistry, said the Dead Father. In my ukases.
Let us lunch, said Julie. Although it's early.
The roadside. The tablecloth. Ringle of dinnerbell. Toasted prawns. They disposed themselves around the cloth in this fashion:
Not so bad.
Is there mustard?
In the pot.
Something in it.
Pick it out with your finger.
Nasty little bugger.
Pass the prawns.
And for dessert?
They sat contentedly around the cloth, munching. Ahead of them, the lunch fires of the men. The cable slack in the roadway.
Soon we will be there, said the Dead Father.
Fourteen days or fifteen days, I reckon, Thomas said. If we are headed right.
Is there any doubt?
There is always doubt.
When we are there, and when I wrap myself in its warm yellowness, then I will be young again, said the Dead Father. I shall once more be wiry.
Wiry! Julie exclaimed. She stuffed a part of the tablecloth into her mouth.
My dear, Thomas said. He extended a hand which of itself and without guidance grasped one of her handsome breasts.
Not in front of him.
Thomas removed the hand.
Can you tell us, he asked, what that hussar had done? The one we saw hanged by the neck from the tree back down the road a bit.
Disobeyed a ukase, said the Dead Father. I forget which ukase.
Oh, said Thomas.
Nobody disobeys a ukase of mine, said the Dead Father. He chuckled.
Smug, isn't he, said Julie.
A bit smug, said Thomas.
A bit, the Dead Father said.
They gazed at each other fondly. Three fond gazes roving like searchlights across the prawns.
They packed up. Thomas gave the signal. The cable jerked. The sun still. Trees. Vegetation. Wild gooseberries. Weather.
I'll let you have a wipe of it sometimes, the Dead Father said. Both of you.
Thanks, Julie said.
When I embrace or am embraced by its damned fine luster, the Dead Father said, all this will seem worthwhile.
Even the cable.
Even those galoots you hired to haul on the cable.
Volunteers, every one, Thomas said. Delighted to be in your service. To be wearing your livery.
No matter. When I clutch its fine golden strands to my ancient bosom —
His hopes are got up, I'm afraid, Julie said.
Thomas flang his sword into a bush.
It's not fair! he exclaimed.
What's not fair?
Why do I feel so bad? he asked, looking round him in every direction, as if for an answer.
Are you ill?
I could use a suck of the breast, Thomas said.
Not in front of him.
They retired from the Dead Father's view, behind a proliferation of Queen Anne's lace. Julie seated herself on the ground and opened her blouse. Two bold breasts presented themselves, the left a little smaller than the right but just as handsome in its own way.
Ah! said Thomas, after a time. Nothing like a suck of the breast. Is there more?
While I live, beloved.
Thomas indulged himself further.
Julie buttoned her blouse. They emerged hand-in-hand from the Queen Anne's lace, Thomas swabbing his chops with the hand that was not hand-in-hand.
A bit left out, said the Dead Father. A bit. That is what I feel, at this moment.
Suffer, said Thomas, reclaiming his sword from the bush.
Excluded, said the Dead Father.
It is because you are an old fart, Julie explained. Old farts don't get much.
The Dead Father leaped to his feet and stormed off down the road, upon receiving this information. His golden robes flaring all about him. The cable trailing.
He has slipped his cable, said Thomas.
They stormed off after him. When they caught up, they found a terrible scene.
The Dead Father was slaying, in a grove of music and musicians. First he slew a harpist and then a performer upon the serpent and also a banger upon the rattle and also a blower of the Persian trumpet and one upon the Indian trumpet and one upon the Hebrew trumpet and one upon the Roman trumpet and one upon the Chinese trumpet of copper-covered wood. Also a blower upon the marrow trumpet and one upon the slide trumpet and one who wearing upon his head the skin of a cat performed upon the menacing murmurous cornu and three blowers on the hunting horn and several blowers of the conch shell and a player of the double aulos and flautists of all descriptions and a Panpiper and a fagotto player and two virtuosos of the quail whistle and a zampogna player whose fingering of the chanters was sweet to the ear and by-the-bye and during a rest period he slew four buzzers and a shawmist and one blower upon the water jar and a clavicytheriumist who was before he slew her a woman, and a stroker of the theorbo and countless nervous-fingered drummers as well as an archlutist, and then whanging his sword this way and that the Dead Father slew a cittern plucker and five lyresmiters and various mandolinists, and slew too a violist and a player of the kit and a picker of the psaltery and a beater of the dulcimer and a hurdy-gurdier and a player of the spike fiddle and sundry kettledrummers and a triangulist and two-score finger cymbal clinkers and a xylophone artist and two gongers and a player of the small semantron who fell with his iron hammer still in his hand and a trictrac specialist and a marimbist and a maracist and a falcon drummer and a sheng blower and a sansa pusher and a manipulator of the gilded ball.
The Dead Father resting with his two hands on the hilt of his sword, which was planted in the red and steaming earth.
My anger, he said proudly.
Then the Dead Father sheathing his sword pulled from his trousers his ancient prick and pissed upon the dead artists, severally and together, to the best of his ability — four minutes, or one pint.
Impressive, said Julie, had they not been pure cardboard.
My dear, said Thomas, you deal too harshly with him.
I have the greatest possible respect for him and for what he represents, said Julie, let us proceed.
They proceeded.CHAPTER 2
The countryside. Flowers. Creeping snowberry. The road with dust. The sweat popping from little sweat glands. The line of the cable.
Beautiful country around here, said Julie.
Gorgeous, said Thomas.
Great to be alive, said the Dead Father. To breathe in and out. To feel one's muscles bite and snap.
How is your leg? Thomas asked. The mechanical one.
It is incomparable, said the Dead Father. Magnificent, that would be a word for it. I would I had two as good as the left. Old Plugalong.
How did you come by it? asked Thomas. Accident or design?
The latter, said the Dead Father. In my vastness, there was room for, necessity of, every kind of experience. I therefore decided that mechanical experience was a part of experience there was room for, in my vastness. I wanted to know what machines know.
What do machines know?
Machines are sober, uncomplaining, endlessly efficient, and work ceaselessly through all the hours for the good of all, said the Dead Father. They dream, when they dream, of stopping. Of last things. They —
What's that? Thomas interrupted. He was pointing to the side of the road.
Two children. One male. One female. Not too big. Not too small. Holding hands.
Children in love, said Julie.
In love? How do you know?
I have an eye for love, she said, and there it is. A clear instance.
Children, said the Dead Father. Whippersnappers.
What is that? the children asked, pointing to the Dead Father.
That is a Dead Father, Thomas told them.
The children hugged each other tightly.
He doesn't look dead to us, said the girl.
He is walking, said the boy. Or standing up, anyhow.
He is dead only in a sense, Thomas said.
The children kissed each other, on the lips.
They don't seem very impressed, said the Dead Father. Where is the awe?
They are lost in each other, said Julie. Soaks up all available awe.
Don't seem old enough, Thomas said. How old are you? he asked.
We are twenty, said the girl. I am ten and he is ten. Old enough. We are going to live together all our lives and love each other all our lives until we die. We know it. But don't tell anyone because we'll be beaten, if the knowledge becomes general.
Aren't they supposed to be throwing rocks at each other at this age? Thomas asked.
Always magnificent exceptions, Julie said.
We have cut our fingers with an X-Acto knife and mingled our bloods, the boy said.
Two tiny forefingers with short crusty cuts exhibited.
Did you sterilize the knife? I hope? Julie asked.
We dangled it in the vodka bottle, said the girl, I judged that sufficient.
That would do it, Thomas said.
We will never be parted. I am Hilda and he is Lars. When he is eighteen he is going to refuse to do his military service and I am going to do something so I can be put in the same jail with him, I haven't thought it up yet.
Admirable, Julie said.
We are together, said Hilda, and will always be. You are too old to know how it is.
You must be about twenty-six.
And he is even older, she said, indicating Thomas.
Considerably, Thomas admitted.
And he, she pointed to the Dead Father, must be, I can't imagine. Maybe a hundred.
Wrong, the Dead Father said gaily. Wrong, but close. Even older than that, but also younger. Having it both ways is a thing I like.
All this age fills up your heads, Hilda said. So you cannot remember what it was like, being a child. Probably you don't even remember the fear. So much of the it. So little of you. The lunge under the blanket.
There is still more of the it than there is of me, said Thomas. But one gets along reasonably well.
Reasonably, said the girl, what a word.
The children began caressing each other, with hands and cheeks and hair.
Do we have to witness this? asked the Dead Father. This gross physicality?
You are in a new world, Thomas said. Nine-year-olds are arrested for rape. This is not that. Be grateful.
Dyscrasia, the Dead Father said, that is what I think of it. Pathological. I shall issue a ukase against it.
Are you in school? Julie asked the children.
Of course we are in school, Hilda said. Why does everyone always ask a child if he or she is in school? We are all in school. There is no way to excape.
Do you want to excape?
What do you study in school?
We are invigorated with the sweet sensuality of language. We learn to make sentences. Come to me. May I come to your house? Christmas comes but once a year. I'll come to your question. The light comes and goes. Success comes to those who strive. Tuesday comes after Monday. Her aria comes in the third act. Toothpaste comes in a tube. Peaches come from trees and good results do not come from careless work. This comes of thoughtlessness. The baby came at dawn. She comes from Warsaw. He comes from a good family. It will come easy with a little practice. I'll come to thee by moonlight, though —
I think this child is a bit of a smart-ass, said the Dead Father. I shall cause her to be sent to a Special School and her rusty-mouthed companion there also.
If you do that we shall leap into the reservoir, Lars said, together. And drown. I am going to tell you something utterly astounding, surprising, marvelous, miraculous, triumphant, astonishing, unheard of, singular, extraordinary, incredible, unforeseen, vast, tiny, rare, common, glaring, secret until today, brilliant and enviable; in short something unexampled in previous ages except for one single instance which is not really comparable; something we find impossible to believe in Paris (so how could anyone in Lyons believe it?), something which makes everyone exclaim aloud in amazement, something which causes the greatest joy to those who know of it, something, in short, which will make you doubt the evidence of your senses: We don't care what you think.
I am offended, said the Dead Father.
I was quoting Mme de Sévigné, said the boy, except for the last part, which was mine.
These children are tuned a little fine, the Dead Father said, a Special School is the answer.
Is that the kind that looks like a zoo?
There are cages, yes. But we have been experimenting with moats.
No way, the children said.
The children standing and washing each other with their active hands.
I cannot bear to look longer, said Julie, let us proceed.
These are odd children, Thomas said, but all children are odd children, rightly regarded.
Shout of Thomas to the men: Resume, resume!
Tightening of the cable.
Small gifts to the children: a power mower, a Blendor.
They will need them in their long lives together, Thomas explained.
Goodbye! Goodbye! the children shouted. Don't tell, please don't tell, never tell, never tell, please!
We won't we won't we won't! they shouted back. The Dead Father did not shout.
Children, he said. Without children I would not be the Father. No Fatherhood without childhood. I never wanted it, it was thrust upon me. Tribute of a sort but I could have done without, fathering then raising each one of the thousands and thousands and tens of thousands, the inflation of the little bundle to big bundle, period of years, and then making sure the big bundles if male wore their cap-and-bells, and if not observed the principle of jus primae noctis, the embarrassment of sending away those I didn't want, the pain of sending away those I did want, out into the lifestream of the city, nevermore to warm my cold couch, and the management of the hussars, maintenance of public order, keeping the zip codes straight, keeping the fug out of the gutters, would have preferred remaining in my study comparing editions of Klinger, the first state, the second state, the third state, and so on, was there parting along the fold? and so on, water stain and so on, but this was not possible, all went forth and multiplied, and multiplied, and multiplied, and I had to Father, it was the natural order, thousands, tens of thousands, but I wanted to wonder if if if I put a wood pulp mat next to a 100 percent rag print would there be foxing and whether the rumblings of the underground would shake the chalk dust from my pastels or not. I never wanted it, it was thrust upon me. I wanted to worry about the action of the sun fading what I valued most, strong browns turning to pale browns if not vacant yellows, how to protect against, that sort of thing, but no, I had to devour them, hundreds, thousands, feefifofum, sometimes their shoes too, get a good mouthful of childleg and you find, between your teeth, the poisoned sneaker. Hair as well, millions of pounds of hair scarifying the gut over the years, why couldn't they have just been thrown down wells, exposed on hillsides, accidentally electrocuted by model railroads? And the worst was their blue jeans, my meals course after course of improperly laundered blue jeans, T-shirts, saris, Thom McAns. I suppose I could have hired someone to peel them for me first.
Excerpted from The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. Copyright © 1975 Donald Barthelme. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.