"Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning", by Donald Barthelme
Author: Donald Barthelme (1931-1989)
Donald Barthelme was one of a number of experimentalists writing in the
1960s, heavily influenced by earlier experimental writers, from the eighteenth-century
novelist Laurence Sterne to James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges in the twentieth.
Barthelme and such writers as John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Robert Coover,
William Gass, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon,
Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Tom Wolfe played with fictional forms,
with language, with representation, and with established literary norms.
Their work was given a variety of labelsblack humor, metafiction, surfiction,
superfiction, irrealismthat attempted to describe the ways that the authors
used language. Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning, a story in Barthelme's
1968 collection of short fictions Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts,
consists of twenty-four scenes, or vignettes, that concern Robert Kennedy,
a then-powerful political figure. These vignettes are less story-like than
they are like the work of Karsh of Ottawa, a famous portrait photographer,
who explains in the story's ninth scene that in each portrait sitting there
is only one shot that is the right one. What Barthelme appears to offer,
therefore, are a series of disconnected portraits. Indeed, throughout his
career, Barthelme was deeply concerned with the fragmentary nature of everyday
living, and the extent to which it consisted of so much dreck (garbage).
Early reviews of his work were mixed. Critics who were searching for grand
themes and who were used to more linear, plot-centered works, had a difficult
time understanding the seemingly fragmentary and often mundane representations
that characterized so much of Barthelme's work. Later critics have found
his work to be highly representative of ordinary living in the late twentieth
century, so much so that he has even been called a realist, despite the
oddities and strange constructions he presents throughout his work.
The story consists of twenty-four vignettes, or short scenes. What the
reader learns about Kennedy is filtered through what the narrator and Kennedy's
acquaintances say about the man, as well as what Kennedy says about himself
and about his views on the world. The story opens with a description, given
by the narrator, of Kennedy at work. The description sets the tone for
the rest of the story: these scenes will be brief and will often present
contradictory ideas. K., as Kennedy is referred to throughout, is neither
abrupt nor kind, or he is abrupt and kind, says the narrator. He uses the
telephone both to dominate and to comfort those at the other end.
There is no plot in the traditional sense of the concept. The vignettes
are not arranged by a sequence of events that build to a climax and resolve
themselves in the falling action. Instead, the vignettes are arranged much
as collages are. Therefore, some of their import depends upon what scenes
are next to each other. For example, in one scene readers find one of Kennedy's
friends speaking about Kennedy's solitary nature and how difficult he is
to get to know. The next scene offers Kennedy's own commentary on his relationships
with crowds of people. Often, like the narrator's comments in the opening
scene, these juxtapositions offer contradictory views of the man.
Many scenes are concerned with the ordinary things that Kennedy does.
At a party, he goes behind the bar to make himself a drink only to be asked
by the bartender to leave. He receives twelve newspapers a day. He travels
through unnamed towns in France and Germany. Later, he wanders unnamed
in towns in what is presumably the United States and sees the young people
of the country. He reacts emotionally to music on the radio, or to stories
he's read in the newspapers. He comments on art. He fails to understand
his children. He dreams. He struggles in the water, nearly drowning, though
without any emotional reaction whatsoever.
Five of the twenty-four scenes offer direct quotes from Kennedy's friends
and employees. His secretaries and administrative assistants, for example,
recount stories of his actions. One secretary tells how he personally delivered
tulips to her when she was in the hospital; the assistant tells how he
resolved a mounting (but unidentified) crisis with a single phone call.
His former teacher identifies compassion as perhaps Kennedy's most distinguishing
The remaining scenes introduce Kennedy's own comments on the world and
his role in it. Like the narrator's descriptions, these comments are often
contradictory, or give multiple facets of the man. He speaks about how
he responds to and manages crowds of people. In another, he speculates
that he has no effect on the world at all. In all cases, however, Kennedy
identifies with what he calls the Marivaudian being, a person who is always
in the immediate present.
In the final scene, the narrator finds Kennedy in the water, drowning.
The narrator throws a rope to him and pulls him to safety.
Robert Kennedy variant: K: Robert Kennedy, known in the story by the first
letter of his last name, K, is the subject of the story. The character
is drawn from the public figure of Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of President
John Kennedy, and is presented in a variety of contexts that might be expected
to give a well-rounded portrait of the man. Kennedy dreams, works at his
desk, resolves crises, reads to his children, and talks about art in this
story. He also gives extended monologues on a French writer, on his role
in the world, on how to monitor situations, and on the crowds of young
people that are his constituency. Although the story consists of numerous
sketches of the man, a fully fleshed portrait never emerges.
Narrator : The unnamed narrator of the story controls what is seen and
heard about Kennedy. This narrator recounts the events in half of the scenes
with an apparently objective presentation of facts. The selection of facts,
however, is often bizarre. In the other scenes, the narrator does not speak,
but presents the voices of Kennedy's friends and colleagues or of Kennedy
himself. Twice in the story, the narrator comes forward in the first person.
The first time, he or she indicates what a notoriously poor observer he
or she is, thereby undermining much of what is presented, especially considering
the oddities upon which he or she has focused. The second time the narrator
appears in first person is in the final scene when he or she throws a drowning
Kennedy a rope. The distance between the narrator and Kennedy begins to
collapse when the narrator offers direct descriptions of Kennedy's dreams
and thoughts, especially when Kennedy's thoughts repeat what the narrator
has just reported.
Others : Barthelme devotes five scenes to characters who are known only
by their voices (in most cases, the titles indicate who is speaking). Secretaries,
an aide, an administrative assistant, a friend, and a former teacher tell
brief anecdotes about Kennedy, anecdotes that highlight something special
about him. Often, they stress Kennedy's emotional effect on the people
around him. The teacher recalls Kennedy's compassion as his defining and
unusual characteristic. One secretary lauds Kennedy's ability to remember
his employees and their personal problems, exemplified by his bringing
her tulips when she was in the hospital. The administrative assistant tells
how Kennedy resolved both a mounting crisis and the general nervousness
of his staff with a single phone call. Kennedy's friend explains how difficult
it is to know Kennedy, because he does such unexpected things. Ironically,
the friend reports, Kennedy has an unshakable faith that things will do
what they are expected to do.
Source: "`Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning'," in Short Stories for Students,
Vol. 3, Gale Research, 1998.
swiped from Seattle Public Library's database Literature Resource Center