This is a very short, odd little story, full of Barthelme’s trademark dry, darkish humor. It’s short enough that it’s difficult to describe without giving the whole story arc away. So, in brief: The narrator, Edgar, is a teacher at the titular school. The school has had an unfortunate run of bad luck in the mortality department. When the story begins, we learn of the death of the students’ orange trees, then herb gardens and snakes. Then things progress, well, steadily from there. Is something “wrong” with the school? By the end, the reader begins to wonder if perhaps there is something at least unusual about the students, as they begin to ask extraordinarily precocious questions about life and death and finally to make a highly unorthodox request of the teacher. To me, these students took on an alien tinge.
Barthelme is very funny, in a gallows sort of way. I appreciate this type of humor very much, but some readers might find him a bit morbid. Although the writing isn’t sarcastic, you can feel both sarcasm and cynicism bubbling beneath the surface imagery and hidden in the cracks among the off-hand, conversational language of the piece.
Based on this reading and what I’ve read about the author, I imagine this brief tale would be an excellent barometer for whether a reader would like to seek out more of Barthelme’s work. I would definitely seat him at the same table as George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, Kelly Link and Mark Twain, as they all share a certain weirdly-wise vibe, a deep understanding for the world around them that they are able to distill into the keenest satire, with strangeness always lurking right around the edges.