The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Donald Barthelme’s Irreverent Vintage Children’s Book
By Maria Popova
What a wonderful surprise to find out that the great Donald Barthelme, upon turning forty, joined the ranks of award-winning authors of “grown-up” literature who also wrote generally little-known and invariably lovely children’s books — a phenomenon that gave us gems by Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, Carson McCullers, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Gertrude Stein.
It tells the story of young Mathilda who, one fine morning in 1887, strolls into the backyard to discover that “a mysterious Chinese house, only six feet high, had grown there overnight.” Having wished for a fire engine instead, she finds herself intrigued by the Chinese house nonetheless — in no small part because emanating from it are strange growls, howls, whispers, and trumpeting. Once she walks in, Mathilda encounters all sorts of oddities — an enormous popcorn-popping machine, an elephant that falls downhill once a day and, like a high-end Manhattan restaurant, is “closed on Mondays,” a despondent captured pirate, and all in all “every kind of flawless flourishy footlooseness,” governed by a “hithering tithering djinn.”
When her nurse calls for her, Mathilda scurries back out and returns indoors. The next morning, she awakes to find the Chinese house gone, but the djinn has left her one final surprise, the fire engine she so desired — except “instead of being sparkling red, it was bright green.”
“The djinn must not know too much about fire engines,” Mathilda thought. “But green is a beautiful color too.”
And Mathilda’s father and mother, that gay and laughing couple, were very glad to have a bright green fire engine to ride in when they went out for an evening, and Mathilda lent it to them whenever they wished.
Like Mark Twain, whose signature witty irreverence in writing for adults springs equally alive in his writings for children, Barthelme takes great care not to insult children’s inherent intelligence by talking down to them from the podium of the All-Knowing Adult or boring them with the predictable patterns of classic children’s tales — the journey, the miracle, the happily-ever-after. More than that, Barthelme tickles a meta-awareness of these patterns and instead invites children to play with them, to engage the story as a game not of make-believe but of playful parody. The coupling of traditional Victorian engravings with wryly ironic captions that wink at society’s hypocrisies only amplifies Barthelme’s bold invitation.
The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine won the National Book Award that year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barthelme concluded his acceptance speech with one of his signature packets of subtle, soul-expanding wisdom.
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.
Published May 28, 2014