Post Road Magazine #24


Paul LaFarge

Donald Barthelme's The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, or the Hithering Thithering Djinn was published in 1971, and it won the National Book Award for children's literature in 1972—the only major literary prize Barthelme would ever win. I would have liked for Barthelme to win every prize offered to a writer and then also the ones for mathematicians and architects, but on the other hand I am loath to complain about his having won only this one, because The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine is an extraordinary book. It came into my hands because my parents were very young, and like many young people they enjoyed experimentation. Chiefly what they experimented with, so far as I know, was getting married to each other and having a child—my mother also tried graduate school in English. None of these experiments turned out particularly well, and at some point in the early 1970s my parents found themselves taking turns entertaining or at least distracting me. This is where Barthelme comes in. What better way to distract an experimental child than with a children's book by an experimental writer?

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine is set "one morning in a year not too long ago—the year 1887, to be precise," and it concerns a girl named Mathilda who wants a fire engine. Instead a Chinese house appears on her lawn, and, entering it, Mathilda (even the h is important somehow: a consonant from a slower, more ample time) finds two Chinese guards, a rainmaker, a pirate who has knit himself four beards ("in four different colors. Brown, brown, brown and brown"), a djinn, a cat-seller, an elephant that throws itself down the hill, a one-man-band, and so on. There is, so far as I can tell, reading it again now, no moral. There isn't really even any point. There are a lot of Victorian engravings, and a number of utterly cryptic slogans—"Years Are Bearing Us to Heaven," reads one of them; another is just "PERPENDICULARITY" — set in woodtype fonts. And yet it made sense to me; it made so much sense that, if whimsical collage had been a religion, I would instantly have converted to it. Even now I wonder if I have Barthelme to blame for my feeling that the nineteenth century is not over, that we are still living in some odd prolongation of it, and that we will continue to live in it at least until Dover Books stops making albums of old engravings. (Of course, by then there will be some other past to cut up.) I'm tempted to go farther and assert that the absurdity of The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine rhymed with the absurdity of my childhood, which, thanks to the wonders of joint custody, was itself a kind of collage. I could perhaps support this assertion by making reference to Barthelme's marital problems, which culminated a year after The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine was published, when his wife Birgit returned to Denmark, and took his daughter Anne with her — but it doesn't seem necessary. Divorce is only one way of learning that the pieces of life don't all necessarily try that hard to fit together.

Barthelme's acceptance speech for the National Book Award was brief—I imagine him feeling a little surly about it. He'd published City Life a year earlier, and he might have been thinking, why this and not that? At the end of the speech, he says, "Mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them. That is perhaps one of the reasons we have children." Which seems like a hopeful way to put it. The world is incongruous and mysterious to children, but children are also a mystery: how will their pieces come together? Will they come together? I don't have children myself, but the thought of passing The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine on to one makes Barthelme's proposition almost tempting.

I should add that Mathilda does actually get a fire engine in the end. It is bright green.

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