The Dead Father

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The Dead Father (1975) is a post-modernist novel by Donald Barthelme that relates the journey of a vaguely defined entity that symbolizes fatherhood, hauled by a small group of people as the plot unravels through narratives, anecdotes, dialogues, reflections and allegories presented to the reader through the tools and constructions of postmodern literature.


  • The Dead Father’s head. The main thing is, his eyes are open. Staring up into the sky. The eyes a two-valued blue, the blues of the Gitanes cigarette pack. The head never moves. Decades of staring. The brow is noble, good Christ, what else? Broad and noble. And serene, of course, he’s dead, what else if not serene? From the tip of his finely shaped delicately nostriled nose to the ground, fall of five and one half meters, figure obtained by triangulation. The hair is gray but a young gray. Full, almost to the shoulder, it is possible to admire the hair for a long time, many do, on a Sunday or other holiday or in those sandwich hours neatly placed between fattish slices of work. Jawline compares favorably to a rock formation. Imposing, rugged, all that. The great jaw contains thirty-two teeth, twenty-eight of the whiteness of standard bathroom fixtures and four stained, the latter a consequence of addiction to tobacco, according to legend, this beige quartet to be found in the center of the lower jaw. He is not perfect, thank God for that. The full red lips drawn back in a slight rictus, slight but not unpleasant rictus, disclosing a bit of mackerel salad lodged between two of the stained four. We think it’s mackerel salad. It appears to be mackerel salad. In the sagas, it is mackerel salad.
    Dead, but still with us, still with us, but dead.
    • opening, pp. 9–10
  • When I asked you to help me, [the Dead Father] said, it wasn’t because I needed help.
    Of course not, said Thomas.
    I’m doing this for you, essentially, the Dead Father said. For the general good, and thus, for you.
    Thomas said nothing.
    As so much else, said the Dead Father.
    Thomas said nothing.
    You never knew, said the Dead Father.
    Thomas turned his head.
    You told us, he said, repeatedly.
    Oh well yes I may have mentioned the odd initiative now and again. But you never knew. In the fullest sense. Because you are not a father.
    I am, Thomas said. You forget Elsie.
    Doesn’t count, said the Dead Father. A son can never, in the fullest sense, become a father. Some amount of amateur effort is possible. A son may after honest endeavor produce what some people might call, technically, children. But he remains a son. In the fullest sense.
    • pp. 45–46
  • Best not to anticipate too much, said Thomas, it jiggles the possibilities.
    • p. 47
  • And what did philosophy teach you? asked the Dead Father.
    It taught me that I have no talent for philosophy, said Thomas, bbbbbbut—
    But what?
    But I think everybody should have a little philosophy, Thomas said. It helps, a little. It helps. It is good. It is about half as good as music.
    • p. 76
  • You see! Thomas exclaimed. There it is! Things are not simple. Error is always possible, even with the best intentions in the world. People make mistakes. Things are not done right. Right things are not done. There are cases which are not clear. You must be able to tolerate the anxiety. To do otherwise is to jump ship, ethics-wise.
    • p. 119
  • Well there tall thin fellow, said Julie, why are you here?
    I heard there were strangers. We don’t often get strangers. I wanted to give it to you.
    Wanted to give what to us?
    He appears to be a dolt of some kind, Thomas said, sotto voce.
    The book, Peter said.
    What is it about?
    Peter had a frayed tattered disintegrating volume with showers of ratsnest falling out of it clutched to his chest.
    It is a manual, he said. Might be of some small use to you. On the other hand, might not.
    Are you the author? Julie asked
    Oh no, said Peter. I am the translator.
    From what language was it translated?
    It was translated from English, he said, into English.
    You must have studied English.
    Yes I did study English.
    Is it long? Thomas asked, looking at the thin book.
    It is not long, Peter said, and at the same time, too long.
    Then, furiously:
    Do you know what translators are paid?
    Not my fault, Julie said, as with much else in this world, not my fault.
    Pennies! Peter proclaimed.
    Are you selling us this book?
    No, Peter said, I am giving it to you as a gift. It is not worth selling.
    Edition of forty, he said, printed originally on pieces of pumpernickel. This is the second edition.
    We must give you something, Thomas said. What can it be?
    You are strangers, Peter said. Your approval would be enough.
    You have it, Julie said. She kissed Peter on the forehead.
    I am justified, Peter said, for the time being. I can struggle on, for the time being. I am reified, for the time being.
    Exit of Peter.
    He didn’t ask much, said Thomas.
    His bargaining position is not the best, Julie said. He is a translator.
    They lay on their stomachs in the bed, looking at the book.
    The book was titled A Manual for Sons.
    The author was not credited.
    “Translated from the English by Peter Scatterpatter” was found on the title page.
    They began to read the book.
    • pp. 137–138
  • Mad fathers stalk up and down the boulevards, shouting. Avoid them, or embrace them, or tell them your deepest thoughts—it makes no difference, they have deaf ears. If their dress is covered with sewn-on tin cans and their spittle is like a string of red boiled crayfish running head-to-tail down the front of their tin cans, serious impairment of the left brain is present. If, on the other hand, they are simply barking (no tin cans, spittle held securely in the pouch of the cheek), they have been driven to distraction by the intricacies of living with others. Go up to them, and, stilling their wooden clappers by putting your left hand between the hinged parts, say you’re sorry. If the barking ceases, this does not mean that they have heard you, it only means they are experiencing erotic thoughts of abominable luster. Permit them to enjoy these images for a space, and then strike them sharply in the nape with the blade of your tanned right hand. Say you’re sorry again. It won’t get through to them (because their brains are mush) but in pronouncing the words, your body will assume an attitude that conveys, in every country of the world, sorrow—this language they can understand. Gently feed them with bits of leftover meat you are carrying in your pockets. First hold the meat in front of their eyes, so that they can see what it is, and then point to their mouths, so that they know that the meat is for them. Mostly, they will open their mouths, at this point. If they do not, throw the meat in between barks. If the meat does not get all the way into the mouth but lands upon (say) the upper lip, hit them again in the neck, this often causes the mouth to pop open and the meat sticking to the upper lip to fall into the mouth. Nothing may work out in the way I have described; in this eventuality, you can do not much for the mad father except listen, for a while, to his babble. If he cries aloud, ”Stomp it, emptor!” then you must attempt to figure out the code. If he cries aloud, ”The fiends have killed your horse!” note down in your notebook the frequency with which the words “the” and “your” occur in his tirade. If he cries aloud, ”The cat’s in its cassock and flitter-to-hee moreso stomp it!” remember that he has already asked you once to “stomp it” and this must refer to something you are doing. So stomp it.
    • pp. 143–144, beginning of A Manual for Sons
  • Son, I got bad news for you. You won’t understand the whole purport of it, ’cause you’re only six, and a little soft in the head too, that fontanelle never did close properly, I wonder why. But I can’t delay it any longer, son, I got to tell you the news. There ain’t no malice in it son, I hope you believe me. The thing is, you got to go to school, son, and get socialized. That’s the news. You’re turnin’ pale, son, I don’t blame you. It’s a terrible thing, but there it is. We’d socialize you here at home, your mother and I, except that we can’t stand to watch it, it’s that dreadful. And your mother and I who love you and always have and always will are a touch sensitive, son. We don’t want to hear your howls and screams. It’s going to be miserable, son, but you won’t hardly feel it. And I know you’ll do well and won’t run away and do anything to make us sad, your mother and I who love you. I know you’ll do well and won’t run away or fall down in fits either. Son, your little face is pitiful. Son, we can’t just let you roam the streets like some kind of crazy animal. Son, you got to get your natural impulses curbed. You’ve got to get your corners knocked off, son, you got to get realistic. They going to vamp you at that school, kid. They going to tear up your ass. They going to learn you how to think, you’ll get your letters there, your letters and your figures, your verbs and all that. Your mother and I could socialize you here at home but it would be too painful for your mother and I who love you. You’re going to meet the stick, son, the stick going to walk up to you and say howdy-do. You’re going to learn about your country at that school, son, oh beautiful for spacious skies. They going to lay just a raft of stuff on you at that school and I caution you not to resist, it ain’t appreciated. Just take it as it comes and you’ll be fine, son, just fine. You got to do right, son, you got to be realistic. They’ll be other kids in that school, kid, and ever’ last one of ’em will be after your lunch money. But don’t give ’em your lunch money, son, put it in your shoe. If they come up against you tell ’em the other kids already got it. That way you fool ’em, you see, son? What’s the matter with you? And watch out for the custodian, son, he’s mean. He don’t like his job. He wanted to be president of a bank. He’s not. It’s made him mean. Watch out for that sap he carries on his hip. Watch out for the teacher, son, she’s sour. Watch out for her tongue, it’ll cut you. She’s got a bad mouth on her, son, don’t balk her if you can help it. I got nothin’ against the schools, kid, they just doin’ their job. Hey kid what’s the matter with you kid? And if this school don’t do the job we’ll find one that can. We’re right behind you, son, your mother and I who love you. You’ll be gettin’ your sports there, your ball sports and your blood sports and watch out for the coach, he’s a disappointed man, some say a sadist but I don’t know about that. You got to develop your body, son. If they shove you, shove back. Don’t take nothin’ off nobody. Don’t show fear. Lay back and watch the guy next to you, do what he does. Except if he’s a damn fool. If he’s a damn fool you’ll know he’s a damn fool ’cause everybody’ll be hittin’ on him. Let me tell you ’bout that school, son. They do what they do ’cause I told them to do it. That’s why they do it. They didn’t think up those ideas their own selves. I told them to do it. Me and your mother who love you, we told them to do it. Behave yourself, kid! Do right! You’ll be fine there, kid, just fine. What’s the matter with you, kid? Don’t be that way. I hear the ice-cream man outside, son. You want to go and see the ice-cream man? Go get you an ice cream, son, and make sure you get your sprinkles. Go give the ice-cream man your quarter, son. And hurry back.
    • pp. 153–155
  • Fathers and dandling: If a father fathers daughters, then our lives are eased. Daughters are for dandling, and are often dandled up until their seventeenth or eighteenth year. The hazard here, which must be faced, is that the father will want to sleep with his beautiful daughter, who is after all ‘’his’’ in a way that even his wife is not, in a way that even his most delicious mistress is not. Some fathers just say “Publish and be damned!” and go ahead and sleep with their new and amazingly sexual daughters, and accept what pangs accumulate afterward; most do not. Most fathers are sufficiently disciplined in this regard, by mental straps, so that the question never arises. When fathers are giving their daughters their “health” instruction (that is to say, talking to them about the reproductive process) (but this is most often done by mothers, in my experience) it is true that a subtle rinse of desire may be tinting the situation slightly (when you are hugging and kissing the small woman sitting on your lap it is hard to know when to stop, it is hard to stop yourself from proceeding as if she were a bigger woman not related to you by blood). But in most cases, the taboo is observed, and additional strictures imposed, such as, “Mary, you are never to allow that filthy John Wilkes Booth to lay a hand upon your bare, white, new breast.” Although in the modern age some fathers are moving rapidly in the other direction, toward the future, saying, “Here, Mary, here is your blue fifty-gallon drum of babykilling foam, with your initials stamped on it in a darker blue, see? there on the the top.” But the important thing about daughter-fathers is that, as fathers, they don’t count. Not to their daughters, I don’t mean—I have heard daughter-stories that would toast your hair—but to themselves. Fathers of daughters see themselves as ‘’hors concours’’ in the great exhibition, and this is a great relief. They do not have to teach hurling the caber. They tend, therefore, to take a milder, gentler hand (meanwhile holding on, with an iron grip, to all the fierce prerogatives that fatherhood of any kind conveys—the guidance system of a slap is an example). To say more than this about fathers of daughters us beyond me, even though I am the father of a daughter.
    • pp. 165–166
  • The sexual organs of fathers: The penises of fathers are traditionally hidden from the inspection of those who are not “clubbable”, as the expression runs. These penises are magical, but not most of the time. Most of the time they are “at rest”. In the “at rest” position they are small, almost shriveled, and easily concealed in carpenter’s aprons, chaps, bathing suits, or ordinary trousers. Actually they are not anything that you would want to show anyone, in this state, they are rather like mushrooms or, possibly, large snails. The magic, at these times, resides in other parts of the father (fingertips, right arm) and not in the penis. Occasionally a child, usually a bold six-year-old daughter, will request permission to see it. This request should be granted, once. But only in the early morning, when you are in bed, and only when an early-morning erection is not present. Yes, let her touch it (lightly, of course), but briefly. Do not permit her to linger or get too interested. Be matter-of-fact, kind, and undramatic. Pretend, for the moment, that it is as mundane as a big toe. And then calmly, without unseemly haste, cover it up again. Remember that she is being allowed to “touch it”, not “hold it”; the distinction is important. About sons you must use your own judgment. It is injudicious (as well as unnecessary) to terrify them; you have many other ways of accomplishing that. Chancre is a good reason for not doing any of this. When the penises of fathers are semi-erect, titillated by some stray erotic observation, such as a glimpse of an attractive female hoof, bereft of its slipper, knowing smiles should be exchanged with the other fathers present (better: half smiles) and the matter let drop. Semi-erectness is a half measure, as Aristotle knew; that is why most of the penises in museums have been knocked off with a mallet. The original artificers could not bear the idea of Aristotle’s disapproval, and mutilated their work rather than merit the scorn of the great Peripatetic. The notion that this mutilation was carried out by later (Christian) “cleanup squads” is untrue, pure legend. The matter is as I have presented it. The excited, mad, fully erect penis should be displayed only to the one who has excited it, for his or her lips, for the kiss of amelioration. Many other things can be done with the penises of fathers, but these have already been adequately described by other people. The penises of fathers are in every respect superior to the penises of nonfathers, not because of size or weight or any consideration of that sort but because of a metaphysical “responsibility”. This is true even of poor, bad, or insane fathers. African artifacts reflect this special situation. Pre-Columbian artifacts, for the most part, do not.
    • pp. 173–175
  • Patricide: Patricide is a bad idea, first because it contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father’s every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide!—member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded. It is all right to feel this hot emotion, but not to act upon it. And it is not necessary. It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere.
    • p. 179

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