Picks and Pans Review: The King

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Donald Barthelme

Sir Lancelot is riding in the king's forest with Sir Roger when they meet a man named Walter the Penniless, draped with rags, slung with rabbits and fair dripping with insolence. Contrary to custom and "earthly prohibitions," knights and peasant set about making a fire and cooking the king's rabbits. In the course of the meal, they speak about the "crusade in Europe."

"The way I see it," says Walter, "the old order is dead. Finished. We don't want the extraordinary, as represented by your gentlemen and your famous king, any longer. It is a time for the unexceptional, the untalented, the ordinary, the downright maladroit. Quite a large constituency."

In this, his last novel, completed just before he died last July at 58, Barthelme took the twin legends of British spunk—King Arthur's reign and the Battle of Britain in World War II—and tangled them together willy-nilly. Like crossed live electric wires, they give off sparks—of humor and wisdom. Thus, Walter the Penniless makes Barthelme's point clear—legends fragment, proliferate and change our view of the past: "You know what happened when the Polish cavalry attacked the German tanks. Why the horsemen were smashed to fritters! A tank is nothing else but an expression of the will of a hundred workers who put it together. And they shall prevail!"

Barthelme conjures up Churchill and Ezra Pound and Dunkirk, tossing them all into one big pot, as if all legends, parables, fables and metafiction (fiction about fiction) were a bubbling stew.

King Arthur and Camelot were only legend. And maybe so was Dunkirk (in some of its retellings) and the "Britain-can-take-it" spirit, according to Barthelme. But he rouses us to think about the nature of legends. While the earth burns, Sir Lancelot "lieth under an apple tree, sleeping!" Instead of riding ceaselessly between adventures, instead of engaging giants and fiends, instead of slaying dragons, Lancelot sleeps on, undisturbed. And while he sleeps, King Arthur takes Queen Guinevere to safety, away from the Blitz, in the mountains. She says," 'But you, dear Arthur, are a bit at sixes and sevens, in terms of legend. You require, legend requires, a tragic end.'

" 'It will find me, never fear,' said the king. 'No particular hurry, I suppose?'

" 'I can wait,' said the queen.' "

Barthelme's swan song is a sprightly, sorrowful thing—still a joy to those with a wistful, romantic view of life. (Burlingame/ Harper & Row, $16.95)

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